Monday, May 24, 2010

Stravinsky, Bernstein and Ravel at the SF Symphony

Last week's program at the San Francisco Symphony was to have included Stravinsky's rarely-heard 1958 "Threni: Lamentations of Jeremiah," a foray into forbidding twelve-tone music for six vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra. Thanks to Homeland Security's absurd new restrictions on foreigners, though, the visas for the British soloists didn't come through in time so there was a last-minute program replacement, a short funeral ode for Natalie Koussevitzky by Stravinsky and one of Leonard Bernstein's attempts at "serious" music, the 1965 "Chichester Psalms" for chorus, soloists, and orchestra.

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas took to the microphone and expressed how disappointed he was in not being able to perform "Threni," but said he was performing Stravinsky's "Ode" instead which had never been played in San Francisco before. He gave a graceful speech about Natalie, Serge Koussevitzy's extremely wealthy second wife, "who took a humble Russian Jewish bass player and enabled him to not only become an orchestra conductor but who urged him to commission contemporary composers." This resulted in everything from Ravel's Piano Concerto to Britten's "Peter Grimes" to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

The performance was lovely as was Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms," which sounded almost a bit too sweet after the astringency of Stravinsky. There's an interesting essay by composer John Adams about Bernstein where he expresses his distaste for "Chichester," but I enjoyed it immensely even though it doesn't get close to the mastery of Benjamin Britten's similar church music from the same period.

The real highlight of the performance was the boy soprano, Zachary Weisberg (above left), who has sung a number of bit parts at the San Francisco Opera over the last couple of years. Davies Hall is a huge barn for any vocal soloist to project in, so I expected Weisberg's voice to be small and sweet but instead he filled the entire place. It's a good (or bad) thing that Weisberg didn't live in earlier centuries, because a boy soprano voice like that would have been at risk for being made permanent.

The second half of the concert was "Daphnis et Chloe," Ravel's 1912 score for Diaghalev's Ballets Russes. There are a pair of famous suites taken from the whole ballet, but this concert was the entire hour-long event.

The composer ended up furious with Diaghelev because he omitted the wordless chorus while on tour in London, and Ravel's anger is undertandable because the choral music is so great. However, there's also a reason this ballet about shepherds and shepherdesses and pirates has been relegated to the concert hall, which is the insane expense for a ballet company to mount it with the huge orchestra and chorus intact.

There were moments during the performance last week when I wished for a few beautiful ballet bodies to be hurtling themselves through the air onstage, but the performance by the orchestra and chorus was wonderful. (Click here for a gallic review by Cedric, above, at SFist.)

1 comment:

Matty Boy said...

I'm going to go to bat for the young lad and say it's a good thing he lives in the 21st Century.

Art is great and applause is nice but... well, you know the rest.