Tuesday, March 20, 2018

America vs. Russia at the SF Symphony

Spoiler alert: Russia won. Last week the San Francisco Symphony presented Sudden Changes, a world premiere by American composer Charles Wuorinen, Sergei Prokofiev's 1921 Piano Concerto No. 3, and Aaron Copland's 1946 Third Symphony, which was once hailed as a contender for The Great American Symphony.

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas was the conductor, and is a friend of the 79-year-old Wuorinen, who has had a long, prize-filled (Pulitzer and MacArthur Fellowship) career, which mystifies me completely. The only explanation that makes sense is that the New York composer has always been connected, because his music is painfully, aggressively dull. I heard quite a bit of it when Wuorinen was the SF Symphony's "Conductor in Residence" from 1984 to 1989, and invariably it would be the kind of complex, 12-tone meandering that turned off so many audiences to contemporary classical music, as if it was unpleasant medicine you needed to swallow before your serving of Mozart. As somebody who loves a lot of "New Music," this seriously ticked me off.

On Wuorinen's Wikipedia entry, there is an amusingly arrogant quote: "In a 1988 interview, Wuorinen stated "I feel what I do is right...pluralism [i.e. non-serial music] has gone too far," and criticized views in which "the response of the untutored becomes the sole criterion for judgement." In response, he suggested: "I would try to change the present relationship of the composer to the public from one in which the composer says: 'please, judge me,' to one in which I say: 'I have something to show you and offer my leadership.' " Wuorinen attended the premiere last Thursday (above right in a photo by Stefan Cohen) and at least the huge orchestral aimlessness of Sudden Changes was a mercifully short 15 minutes.

Behzod Abduraimov, a 27-year-old piano phenom from Uzbekistan, followed with an outrageously exciting performance of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, playing it faster and louder than seemed possible while modulating the dynamics beautifully for the gentler sections of the piece. (Photo credit Stefan Cohen.)

In 2012 I heard Horacio Gutiérrez play the concerto with Susanna Mälkki conducting the SF Symphony, and the work sounded completely different than Thursday's wildly percussive account, but what's interesting is that both approaches worked. Whenever a Prokofiev piece is played this well, I fall in love with the composer's music all over again. He created a balance between conservative and modernist musical styles that very few composers have negotiated as well.

After intermission, we were all encouraged to be super quiet because Copland's Symphony No. 3 was being recorded. After the Prokofiev, Copland sounded banal in his attempt at writing a serious, popular American symphony. Even the Fanfare for the Common Man tune that threads through the final movement wasn't enough to save the day, and I found myself wishing Tilson Thomas had programmed a symphony by Henry Cowell or Lou Harrison instead, two underperformed American composers who, like Prokofiev, wrote modern music that's simultaneously interesting and accessible.

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