Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Music for a Modern Age at the SF Symphony

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas returned to the San Francisco Symphony last week with an adventurous, theatrically staged program entitled Music for a Modern Age featuring works by American composers Charles Ives, Lou Harrison, George Antheil, and Tilson Thomas himself. The result on Sunday afternoon was a mixed bag, with many successful elements and a few misfires. Two short, early 20th Century Ives pieces, From the Steeples and the Mountains and The Unanswered Question, began the program with an astringent, bracing blast of modernism. Bass and woodwind players performed onstage, percussionists banging on chimes were on the side terraces, a few other instruments were perched in the balcony, and in The Unanswered Question an entire string section played a delicate tune from the lobby (the doors to the auditorium were kept open). The program booklet noted that there was video by Adam Larsen, but the curving screens stayed blank during the Ives, though the stage was dramatically lit by Luke Kritzeck. (All photos in this post are by Cory Weaver.)

This was followed by the "West Coast premiere" of Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, an ambitious setting by Tilson Thomas of a famous 1920 Carl Sandburg poem about time and the death of "the greatest city,/the greatest nation:/nothing like us ever was." The music was a deliberately jarring mixture of classical modernism and Broadway pop, featuring the superb soprano Measha Brueggergosman convincingly singing music that sounded like Lukas Foss one moment and Dreamgirls the next.

She was joined by Mikaela Bennett and Kate Dugan as "golden girls" and the trio were entertaining as they sang and danced synchronized routines staged by director James Darrah all over the stage and terraces, backed by explosive splashes of color in the reliably brilliant videos by Adam Larsen.

I am not sure what to make of the work itself except to note there was one major problem on Sunday, namely the horrible amplified sound in Davies Hall. The mixture of acoustic instruments and amplified singers/bar band may have worked well at the New World Symphony's concert hall in Miami where Playthings premiered earlier this year, but Davies Hall has some of the crappiest amplified sound of any venue in San Francisco. This concert was publicized with the promise that it would be bringing the experience of the SF Symphony's hipster nightclub, SoundBox, into the larger Davies Hall, and my first thought was, "Can you bring the Meyer sound system from SoundBox while you're at it?" As my concert companion put it, "One of the great voices and orchestras in the world playing live, and it sounds like we're listening to AM radio."

After intermission, Nadya Tichman and a half dozen Symphony percussionists reprised their December 2016 SoundBox performance of Lou Harrison's Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, an achingly lyrical piece co-composed by local violinist Richard Dee. It's a seven movement suite, and they played only three of them at SoundBox and four on this program. One of these days, Nadya will be allowed to perform the whole thing, which would be a delight because she obviously loves the music and made me cry all over again during the final Chaconne. Interestingly, this sweet, quiet, passionate work was the unexpected audience favorite on Sunday afternoon, possibly because it was an island of calm surrounded by assaultive musical seas.

The final work was George Antheil's 1925 original version of A Jazz Symphony, a fun and rambunctious mix of dissonant pianistic modernism and tuneful American jazz. The theatrical icing was "conceived for the stage" by Michael Tilson Thomas and directed/choreographed by his friend, the Broadway veteran Patricia Birch. It would be nice to report that the result was sophisticated and sexy, but in truth it struck me as old-fashioned and sexist, with the excellent dancers Kiva Dawson and Erin Moore shaking their asses as stylized versions of Zelda Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker in 1920s Gay Paree. "This looks like entertainment you'd see on a cruise line," my concert companion muttered, and though I have never been on a cruise, that sounded about right.

It was too bad because the musical performance of the innovative symphony was so good, including brilliant, over-the-top performances by solo pianist Peter Dugan above and SF Symphony principal horn player Mark Inouye.


Hattie said...

With all this going on, I can't understand why there is not at least one regular critic who is reporting and commenting on the SF music scene. Here you are, doing this for free!

Red Strings said...

This is a gorgeous place, and I won't soon forget it. Attended an event here sponsored by the company. The reception hour was held in one of the rooms next to the hall. At venues in San Francisco I loved their buttery mashed sweet potato.