Sunday, August 31, 2014

SF Symphony Fall 2014 Preview

In olden San Francisco, the 1970s to be exact, the end was near for the concept of first-run and second-run movie theaters. At that time the Embassy, a 1905 vaudeville house turned movie palace at 7th and Market, was an ancient throwback which still hosted Depression-era cash prize drawings from the stage between double features of films so dissimilar it was often a surreal joke. My favorite weird pairing was Ken Russell's lurid, X-rated 1971 film, The Devils with Vanessa Redgrave as a nun being exorcised by Oliver Reed, followed by the black-and-white 1954 Hollywood boardroom melodrama, Executive Suite, with an all-star cast including Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden. On what alternative planet were these two films supposed to have any kind of aesthetic correlation?

This memory is prompted by the opening of San Francisco Symphony's 2014-15 season this Wednesday, which has wonderful music scattered throughout the year, but quite a few bizarre juxtapositions on single programs. Take the concerts of September 18th through the 21st, which start with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. This is followed by a wildly inventive "spatial music" piece by Henry Brant written specifically for Davies Hall in 2001, where an organist wails and improvises away while the orchestra is broken up and stationed throughout the entire large concert hall. I heard the premiere with the composer playing the organ himself, and it was stimulating fun, but how does it correlate in any way with a chamber concerto by Bach? After intermission, the full orchestra will reassemble on stage and play Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Executive Suite, meet The Devils.

The following week, from September 25th to September 29th, Tilson Thomas above conducts a program that features music from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, including Ligeti's Lux aeterna, R. Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, and J. Strauss, Jr.'s Blue Danube Waltz. However, the first half of the program is a short piece by Lukas Foss and Charles Ives' Three Places in New England. That's some serious Embassy Theater eclecticism. There's also a number of instances where a piece I really want to hear, such as the Britten Violin Concerto on October 15th to October 18th, is bookended by pieces I really don't want to hear live again, such as Barber's Adagio for Strings and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. In fact, I am taking a sabbatical from Rachmaninoff for the indefinite future because the composer was not all that prolific and the same damned pieces of his are performed repeatedly every year at the San Francisco Symphony.

So, enough with the whining and on to a few recommendations, starting with that Bach/Brant/Tchaikovsky program just because Brant's Ice Field, which managed to win the Pulitzer Prize for music that year, is such a rare, interesting bird and can only be heard as intended in Davies Hall. On October 29th to November 1st, there will be three performances of Mahler's massive Symphony No. 7, a relative rarity in the context of Mahler performances with Tilson Thomas conducting music at which he and this orchestra usually excel. On November 8th, you have another chance to hear Samuel Adams' Drift and Providence, Gil Shaham (above) as soloist in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto NO. 2, and Ravel's complete Daphnis et Chloe.

The great, dynamic Vladimir Jurowski above brings the London Philharmonic Orchestra to Davies Hall October 12th and 13th for two programs, one with Dvorak/Prokofiev/Tchaikovsky and the second with Lindberg/Rachmaninoff/Shostakovich. The latter includes Shostakovich's wild, searing Symphony No. 8, and should not be missed, even with Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on the program.

Susanna Malkki (above right) conducts the SF Symphony November 29th and 30th in Griffes' The White Peacock, Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Jeremy Denk (above left) as soloist, and finishes with Brahms' Symphony No. 2. Both artists are great musicians and it should be interesting to hear how they and the orchestra play together.


john_burke100 said...

Maybe some of the program pairings are meant to draw in the older, KDFC-listening folks--"Oh, look, honey, the Brandenburg No. 3!", then subject them to a bracing dose of new music, but program another warhorse to follow, in the hope they won't all walk out after the Bach? (It's short, a disincentive to leaving--we paid HOW much for 20 minutes of Baroque chestnuts?)

As to movies, when Pauline Kael was in charge of programming at the Cinema Guild-Studio in Berkeley around 1959-63 (a tiny two-screen "art" house) she specialized in what we used to call "whiplash double features." It became a parlor game to invent ever more outlandish ones; the all-time winner was Buñuel's "Los Olvidados" (Mexico City slum kids, knifings, heavily Freudian dream sequence, and in B&W) and "Singin' in the Rain."

Michael Strickland said...

Dear John: "Los Olvidados" and "Singing in the Rain" is a great "whiplash" double feature. My favorite was at The Nickelodeon cinema in Santa Cruz back in the 1970s when they showed Bertolucci's "The Conformist" with a weird Japanese B&W philosophical thriller called "The Face of Another," made by the same director of "Woman in the Dunes." My head was spinning afterwards.

As for the strange Symphony pairings, many of them just seem arbitrary rather than intentionally dissimilar, rather like the Embassy whose double features were seemingly based on what film prints happened to be available that week and could be rented for next to nothing.

Hattie said...

Sounds like they've flipped their wigs.