In a famous 1964 speech when receiving the first Aspen Award for the Humanities, composer Benjamin Britten made the following claim:
"One must face the fact today that the vast majority of musical performances take place as far away from the original as it is possible to imagine: I do not mean simply Falstaff being given in Tokyo, or the Mozart Requiem in Madras. I mean of course that such works can be audible in any corner of the globe, at any moment of the day or night, through a loudspeaker, without question of suitability or comprehensibility. Anyone, anywhere, at any time, can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only—that they possess a machine. No qualification is required of any sort—faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Music is now free for all. If I say the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music, I don’t mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study, or as an evoker of memories. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possessions of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the program perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener’s part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener."
In that spirit, here is a listing of the concerts at the San Francisco Symphony over the next six months that have me most excited for a live music experience. The first choice is next week, January 13-15, and it is a remarkably ambitious survey of Gustav Mahler's early work, including the discarded Blumine movement from his First Symphony, the Songs of a Wayfarer, and the original, three-movement opera/cantata Das klagende Lied which he wrote as a teenager and which is an amazing, crazy piece, with offstage bands, six harps, and a huge vocal contingent. To add to the occasion, the soloists Joelle Harvey, Sasha Cooke (above) and Brian Mulligan will be joined by the SF Symphony Chorus, and James Darrah and Adam Larsen will be brought in to stage the work. Not to be missed.
Conductor James Gaffigan was Associate Conductor of the SF Symphony from 2006-2009 where he struck me as extraordinarily gifted, particularly with Mozart whose music he made magical. Since then, he's become the Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony and has been jetting around the world to opera houses and concert halls in a wide range of repertory. From January 19-22, he will be conducting a weird grab bag of pieces – Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto #2, Mozart's Symphony #36, and Strauss's Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome. Looking forward to hearing how he has matured.
World famous, Bay Area composer John Adams is celebrating his 70th birthday (February 15th, to be exact) with the San Francisco Symphony next month. He'll be leading a SoundBox concert February 10th and 11th, and on February 16-18, there will be the first local performances of his The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which some consider his masterpiece. Premiered by the L.A. Philharmonic in 2012-13, it's a three-hour Passion for orchestra, soloists and chorus. It's a bit like his 2000 Nativity oratorio, El Niño, with its collage libretto assembled by director Peter Sellars of Biblical texts and contemporary verse by writers that include everyone from Dorothy Day to Louise Erdrich. It will be conducted by LA Master Chorale director Grant Gershon, who was involved with the premiere and has conducted the work elsewhere. If you are an Adams fan, this is not to be missed. The following week from February 22-25, Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct the first local performances of Adams' 2015 major work for violin and orchestra, Scheherezade 2, featuring soloist Leila Josefowicz for whom it was written.
Another must-experience-live event will be taking place May 4-6, when Charles Dutoit conducts 400+ musicians in Berlioz's Messe des Mortes, the Big Daddy of Requiems. This concert was supposed to happen last year, but was suddenly postponed, probably just to amp up the anticipation for Berlioz worshipers.
One of a handful of "Art Song" superstars in the world, Matthias Goerne (above right, with Christoph Eschenbach) sings Shostakovich's 1974 Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti from May 25-27. That's about all you have to know. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Music Director Manfred Honeck will also offer a Tchaikovsky Symphony (#5), and maybe it will be good.
From June 23-25, Michael Tilson Thomas presents one of his American Mavericks concerts of 20th/21st century U.S. composers including Charles Ives, Lou Harrison (Suite for Symphonic Strings), George Antheil (the Jazz Symphony), and even a piece by the conductor himself. Your chances of hearing the Antheil and Harrison live are infrequent and MTT handles this strain of music brilliantly.
So far, I haven't been quite as convinced by MTT's conducting of Berlioz, but he grows into things, and for a number of years MTT has been playing around with excerpts from the composer's Romeo and Juliet for orchestra, chorus and soloists. From June 28 to July 1, he will be conducting the entire, evening-length cantata with singers that include the divine Sasha Cooke again, the tenor Nicholas Phan (above), and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. This is another work that is performed too infrequently, and any occasion to experience it live is great news. For those who are more conservative in their musical enthusiasms, there are plenty of other interesting looking concerts this season too (I'm looking at Herbert Blomstedt conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony from February 1-5, in particular). For tickets, click here, and for inexpensive, day-of-sale rush tickets, call (415) 503-5577 the day before, after 6PM, for availability.