Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Matinee Mahler

Berkeley and Oakland have long been the central node of contemporary classical music in the Bay Area, with an enviable ecosystem of composers, adventurous performers and highly educated audiences all helping each other along. On Sunday at the San Francisco Symphony afternoon matinee, they were out in force, including the composer Paul Dresher above left, who is having a piece premiered Thursday, October 4th by the Berkeley Symphony.

The Berkeleyites were there to cheer on one of their own, Samuel Carl Adams (above right), the son of famous composer John Adams who had just been given his first large orchestral commission for a 20-minute piece called Drift and Providence.

Michael Tilson Thomas above tried to explain Drift and Providence to us, mentioning that the opening raspy sound in the orchestra was the kernel of the whole work, and the music started promisingly, reminiscent of the soft percussion opening of John Luther Adams' Inuksuit that was performed outdoors at UC Berkeley this June. (Parenthetically, this plethora of composing Adams has officially gotten out of hand. It's like Ingrid Bergman/Ingmar Bergman squared.) Unfortunately, Samuel Carl Adams' piece became less interesting as it went along and the title became literal, as we drifted along to nowhere in particular. The Beast was the only person I have read who thought it was fabulous, and he describes the music in great detail at this link.

After intermission, there was a performance of Mahler's hefty 75-minute Fifth Symphony that drifts all over heaven and hell and back, and I approached the performance with a mixture of dread and hope. Three years ago, I heard MTT conduct the same orchestra in the same music, and it was weird and dreadful (click here for an account). On the hopeful side, I had also heard MTT conduct a Mahler Eighth that was sort of a confused mess one year and then repeat the same score with the same soloists a couple of years later, and the subsequent performance was awe-inspiring.

Happily, hope won out over dread on Sunday afternoon, with a performance by the symphony that was taut, alive, and just plain beautiful. Even the audience of seniors and Goldstar youngsters was great, attentive and silently absorbed. The brass section standing above was supposedly a bit loud and insistent on Friday evening, but by Sunday's matinee they were perfectly calibrated. Mark Inouye is probably the best classical trumpeter in the United States right now and maybe the world. Listening to him weave through the huge score as a soloist and an orchestral collaborator was a serious treat. Between Inouye and viola principal Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Peter Wyrick, this orchestra is getting better with each year.


namastenancy said...

You are on a roll with these reviews.

rchrd said...

I beg to disagree (of course). Sam's piece was quite wonderful. Sam's a colorist, not a tunesmith like his Dad. Which makes him more interesting.

See my review of the same concert at

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Richard: It may make him more interesting for you, but I way prefer Dad the tunesmith.