Monday, February 01, 2016

Super Music Week 1: SF Symphony

Saturday was a triple Turandot day. In the morning, I listened to the Metropolitan Opera's live matinee broadcast on the radio of the Puccini opera featuring Nina Stemme singing the impossible music of the Ice Princess with verve and beauty (Marco Berti and a Russian debutante as Liu not so much). In the evening at the San Francisco Symphony, I heard a program of obscure music by underplayed composers (Weber, Saint-Saens, Busoni and Hindemith) which featured incidental theater music for Turandot by Busoni and Hindemith's arrangement of a Weber piece that was also about the fairy tale Chinese princess who has her suitors' heads chopped off with alarming regularity.

The conductor Edwin Outwater reliably comes up with interesting programming for subscription concerts, steering away from the Beethoven and Brahms and some Schumann and more Beethoven that has been the hallmark of the San Francisco Symphony's season this year. He's smart, personable, and very good with new music. I just wish he was a better conductor. Most of his performances tend to be a bit dull and sound the same, no matter how stylistically different the composers might be. For instance, there's surely a case to be made for Weber's overture to his 1826 opera Oberon, but in Saturday's opener I didn't hear it.

I think of most of Saint-Saens's music as kitsch, but lovable kitsch, and his fifth and final piano concerto, "The Egyptian," is a perfect illustration. The British pianist Stephen Hough above makes anything he plays interesting, and he gave a poetic yet crackerjack virtuoso performance that was thrilling. If the orchestral performance had been on the same level, we would have all left for intermission proclaiming the concerto a forgotten masterpiece.

Turandot started out in a fairy tale collection and was turned into a five-act commedia dell'arte play by Carlo Gozzi in 1762. According to Wikipedia: "Schiller made an adapted German translation of Turandot which was published in 1802. Weber wrote his Incidental music for Turandot, Op. 37, for a production of this play...Busoni thought that between them Schiller and Weber had ruined a masterpiece of Italian literature."

Busoni (1866-1924) was a fascinating character – a piano virtuoso, composer, and teacher, originally from Italy. He roamed the world from the USA to Russia, sat out World War One in Switzerland, and finally settled in Berlin. In 1905, to counter the Germanic desecration of Turandot, he composed a huge amount of incidental music for the Gozzi play, created an eight-movement suite for the concert hall, and then reused the material for his own German-language opera of Turandot in 1917. His music, other than his Bach piano transcriptions, has been infrequently played over the last 100 years, but it seems to be coming into its own over the last couple of decades. This was the first SF Symphony performance of music from his Turandot suite, and unfortunately it was truncated, with only half of the eight movements played, a mistake because the music was so alluring. Hindemith's 1940 Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Weber directly afterwards felt like a disappointment, because we wanted more Busoni and his Ice Princess. So c'mon, adventurous opera groups, how about a double bill of Busoni's Arlecchino and Turandot some season?


Hattie said...

I enjoy reading about concerts, and the background information here is illuminating. The dearth of good music and art criticism is driving me crazy, so I truly appreciate what you do.

Michael Strickland said...

Thanks, Hattie.