Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Ades and Stravinsky at the Symphony

Last week's San Francisco Symphony concerts were the last to be conducted by music director Michael Tilson Thomas for a month, and they showed off both his weaknesses and strengths. The Saturday evening performance started with Mozart's Haffner Symphony, and though MTT is getting better with some of the core 19th century repertory, Mozart is still completely out of his grasp.

Mozart's music, when well played, should make you want to dance since most of the musical forms he uses are based on dance rhythms. If Mozart's music is played exceptionally well, it tends to lead to reveries about romance and love and sex, and if conducted by somebody who really understands it in their bones, the music can break your heart.

I am sad to report that Tilson Thomas still hasn't gotten to the "want to dance" stage, which says nothing about him as a conductor because MTT has a lot of company in making Mozart sound deadly dull. He is a very tricky composer in his simplicity, and Charlise above seemed to agree.

Following the Mozart symphony, three screens scrolled down from the ceiling, and we were treated to a new short piece for large orchestra entitled "Polaris" by the British composer Thomas Ades with an arty three-screen video by his lover/partner/husband/what-have-you (the program didn't specify) Tal Rosner. The video was inoffensive and silly, a mixture of geometric screen savers and ocean scenes filtered through what looked like generic Adobe After Effects layers. It ended with video of two women on a cold beach with windswept hair who finally walked together holding a seaweed rope between them. "Lesbian love is the only true love," I found myself muttering.

The only "multimedia" video that I have actually enjoyed over the last couple of decades was the multiple-screen stage for Paul McCartney during his 2002 solo tour. The huge bank of screens could shatter into 200 different images or comfortably become a single large one, and it was used so intelligently that it was transfixing. The multimedia accompaniment to "Back in the U.S.S.R" was easily the wittiest parody/embrace of Soviet Socialist Realism that has ever been produced.

So it can be done. The high art world, as opposed to the popular art world, just hasn't figured out how quite yet.

Still, it was lovely to have the lights dimmed over the stage on account of the video, which allowed one to just listen, and the music by Thomas Ades (pictured above right with Tal Rosner on the left in the colored tie) was beautiful, with an accessibility I had never heard before from this composer. The music of Ades is usually too dense for me and has never paid off in terms of much sonic pleasure, but this was completely different, channeling Benjamin Britten, especially in his use of the brass who were stationed across the Center Terrace area behind the screens.

After intermission, Tilson Thomas led one of the greatest renditions of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" imaginable, and it was obvious this is music he does understand and can communicate. Though the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra is a sturdy, sometimes inspired ensemble, they have never sounded as exciting as the San Francisco Symphony in this music last week. I kept wishing we could see the Ballet's recent production of the ballet with this orchestra and this conductor in the pit. Now that would be something.


sfphoneguy said...

I agree about the Ades piece. I think it's human nature that when presented with both sight and sound simultaneously, the focus tends to go to the visual. I found myself trying to figure out what was going on with the slide show and realized I was neglecting the music. When I stopped looking at the projections, the music was just beautiful. 'Polaris' would work much better for me as an unaccompanied piece, and if there's a next time, I'll be sure to bring my blinders along...

Brian said...

I hear that the Rosner/Ades connection may not still be au courant.

And not that this has any bearing on that... but a good pal of mine bumped into Ades at a local Silverlake bear watering hole sans Rosner. Apparently he was quite a pleasure to chat with over drinks and streaming gay porn in the bar - or so I'm told.

sfmike said...

Dear Brian: Thanks for that insider update, particularly the Silverlake bear bar with streaming porn detail.