Saturday, October 04, 2014
Also Sprach The Rocks on the Mountain
For the second week in a row, the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas above offered a bizarrely eclectic program. However, unlike the earlier Brant/Tchaikowsky pairing, last weekend's mixture of Foss, Ives, Strauss (both Johann Jr. and Richard), and Ligeti worked well together. The cohesion possibly arrived with the shared eccentricity of three Americans: composers Lukas Foss and Charles Ives and film director Stanley Kubrick who had the inspired notion to score the sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey to music from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the Strausses and Ligeti).
The concert started with an acapella chorus, prompting my concert companion to comment, "There's no musicians!" The Symphony Chorus sang a wordless Lukas Foss piece from 1978 weirdly titled "...then the rocks on the mountain began to shout" -- Charles Ives. Foss was a concert pianist, conductor, and composer in whatever style happened to be progressive and fashionable at the moment, which in this case was Minimalism.
Though the ten-minute piece started off slowly, once the rocks started shouting their nonsense syllables it really got cracking, and the performance by the Symphony Chorus, including bass Shawn Ying above, was tremendous.
This was followed by a sensationally good performance of Charles Ives' Three Places in New England, with its central Putnam's Camp movement depicting a half-dozen small-town bands, all slightly out of tune, playing patriotic marches and hymns in a giant mashup. The final movement, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, has an alternate version that includes the chorus which I had never heard before, and now can't imagine hearing it without the singers.
The second half of the concert featured pieces used in Kubrick's 2001, starting with By the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss, Jr. which hadn't been played on a regular season program since 1938, and they performed it seriously. Another acapella chorus followed, singing Ligeti's 1966 Lux Aeterna, which is on the soundtrack during the lunar module making its way to the Monolith. I had always thought the piece was mostly electronics, so it was startling to hear human voices creating the unearthly soundscape.
The concert ended with Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra. Kubrick only used my favorite part, the opening fanfare for trumpets and organ and full orchestra, but there's 30 more minutes of tone poem which have never done much for me although the rest of the audience seemed to be thrilled. Mark Inouye, the principal trumpet player above, may be the best performer on his instrument in the world. He's a reason alone to go to the San Francisco Symphony these days.