Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rebel at SoundBox

Last weekend the San Francisco Symphony's nightclub series, SoundBox, featured music from Weimar Germany, Soviet Russia, and Contemporary America, and you can draw your own conclusions. The new SF Symphony Youth Orchestra director, Austrian conductor Christian Reff, came up with the program and conducted a dizzying array of chamber pieces, starting with a lively, entertaining transcription of Kurt Weill's Cannon Song from The Threepenny Opera.

This was followed by two movements from the 1923 Kleine Kammermusik, a wind quintet by one of Hitler's least favorite composers, Paul Hindemith. The five players, including Christopher Gaudi on oboe and Tim Day on flute above, were positioned on a tiny stage in the middle of the audience, and the intimacy truly evoked the literal meaning of chamber music.

One of the joys of the SoundBox series has been watching SF Symphony musicians like bassoonist Seven Dibner embracing and being energized by the format and the close-enough-to-touch audiences who are admirably attentive and quiet during the performances.

The final piece from Nazi Germany was by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) who refused to have his compositions performed in Germany during Hitler's regime, spending most of World War Two studying with Webern in Vienna. As one of the few established German artists who didn't go into exile yet remained untainted by the Nazis, Hartmann returned to Munich and was an important musical figure there until his death, writing eight symphonies and introducing music of the 20th century which had been banned since 1933 along with helping to establish contemporary composers like Henze, Xenakis, and Berio. His music has fallen out of favor in Germany and globally, but musical fashions ebb and flow, and from his introduction and conducting, it was obvious young Christian Reff is a devoted advocate. He conducted a string orchestra in the Allegro di molto movement from the Concerto funebre with violinist Dan Carlson above as the impassioned soloist in an exciting, vital performance. The music was so good it made me want to listen to the rest of Hartmann's work.

Soviet Russia was represented by an all-Shostakovch sampler, and why not, since his music is aging better with each passing year. The selections were all over the map, on three stages, starting with a pair of movements from the 1935 Five Fragments for chamber orchestra headed by Nadya Tichman above. Sprinkled in between were three savage, funny songs from the 1960 Satiri (Satires) sung by the reliably brilliant mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, who usually appears with the SF Opera.

A highlight was the performance by bass-baritone Davon Tines above of two movements from Shostakovich's death-obsessed Symphony #14 for chamber orchestra and bass and soprano. Tines projected contempt and power while tossing aside paper sheets with the lyrics during The Zaporozhian Cossack's Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople and dark Russian soul during O Delvig, Delvig! He's become a new John Adams favorite, having sung El Nino with the LA Philharmonic last December and premiering a role in this fall's Girls of the Golden West at the SF Opera.

The "Contemporary America" section of the program started with selections from George Crumb's 1970 Vietnam War infused Black Angels for string quartet and gongs, followed by a five-minute chunk of Julius Eastman's 1969 Gay Guerilla. Eastman wrote the piece for four pianos in a variation on Reich/Glass minimalism where, as Alex Ross noted, "Eastman keeps piliing on elements, so that an initially consonant texture turns discordant and competing rhythmic patterns build to a blur." Local musical polymath Peter Grunberg composed the beautiful transcription, and the accompanying video of a dancer slowly embracing himself was perfection.

Davon Tines returned and strolled through the audience while singing a powerful version of Caroline Shaw's 2016 song, I'll Fly Away, which sounded very different from the folkie styling of the composer (click here for a YouTube video).

The very satisfying concert ended with an excerpt from Jessie Montgomery's 2014 Banner, a multi-culti tribute to The Star Spangled Banner on its 200th birthday. Conductor Reff and his chamber orchestra tore into it with verve, and it was interesting enough I wish they had played the whole piece.

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