Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The California Festival at the SF Symphony

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Music Director of the SF Symphony, doesn't usually talk to the audience before conducting, but during a Sunday matinee concert a couple of weeks ago, he gave a long, funny introduction to his own composition, the 2021 kinema. Salonen described how he was homebound in Finland during the Covid pandemic looking out at the Baltic Sea, feeling despondent, watching too many news channels on TV, and unable to work on anything. Eventually, he was contacted by a filmmaker acquaintance who asked him to write a score for a Finnish romantic film called Odotus, "which seemed like a good task to get my mind working again. The only problem was that about 40% of the movie was sex scenes for which my musical training had not quite prepared me."
Salonen refashioned the soundtrack into five movements for clarinet and a large contingent of strings, adding new music to what he had already composed. The soloist here was the SF Symphony's principal clarinet player, Carey Bell, and the moody 30-minute piece was surprisingly easy and beautiful to hear, especially considering Salonen's usual complexity when he composes for a large orchestra.
Carey Bell gave a virtuosic, seamless performance, though he seemed ill at ease whenever he was not actually playing his instrument, fiddling with the holes outside and cleaning out the interior between movements. At one point, he actually looked like he was going to hyperventilate, but the crisis was averted and he was greeted with a standing ovation when he finished the demanding assignment.
This concert was part of the first California Festival showcasing new classical music performed by 100 different ensembles throughout the state. The 28-year-old, Bay Area composer Jens Ibsen was commissioned for a work by the SF Symphony as part of its "Emerging Black Composers Project." In a long introduction, he talked about his love of "prog rock," and how he wanted to incorporate its sound and rhythms into a full orchestra. "I've often written music where I've had the orchestra sound like electronic music, but this time I wanted to integrate the real thing, so this is basically a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra." Composed this year, Drowned in Light is a fun, noisy ride that morphs into a serene, delicate twilight sound in the second movement.
The electric guitar soloist was hidden in the back of the orchestra below the percussion, which was too bad because Travis Andrews of the avant-garde The Living Earth Show duo, was fabulous and it would have been fun to watch him perform up close.
The final work was Stravinsky's 1942 Symphony in Three Movements, a short, hard-driving piece written during World War Two. Though I am loving Salonen as the new SF Symphony Music Director, his predecessor Michael Tilson Thomas made a better case for this gnarly symphony four years ago in 2019 (click here).

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