Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.
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Violinist Midori proved Saturday in Herbst Theatre, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, that a healthy musical diet can consist almost solely of works written in the 1990s. Her superb musicianship and faultless programming instincts produced one of the best recent-music chamber concerts I have heard in some time. And I mean produced, for not only did Midori plan the program and perform, she also gave master classes and lectures on it at the San Francisco Conservatory, and even wrote a fine set of program notes. Midori is an A to Z concertizer.
Will the “new” symphony by Charles Ives lift you to a higher plane, or send you running from Davies Symphony Hall covering your ears? New York critic Kyle Gann considers the Piano Sonata No. 2 by Charles Ives to be the “one perfect composition.” When he heard Henry Brant’s orchestral reconception of it a year after its Canadian premiere in 1996, he was “blown away,” calling it “The Greatest Symphony Ever (Re)Written.” But when patron Fred Kaufman heard San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas lead Brant’s version in Miami last year, he “ran away after the first movement,” possibly in response to the “low-gear Mahler to deafening cacophony” experienced by South Florida Classical Review critic Lawrence A. Johnson. One thing is for sure: Nothing will be humdrum in the San Francisco Symphony concerts of Feb. 3-6.
To sweeten the pie, the program opens with Franz Schubert’s brief and charming Mass No. 2 in G Major, D. 167, with three soloists and the Symphony Chorus. Then comes the music that so inspired Ives that he had to write a book about it, called Essays Before a Sonata. The title of the piece comes from the Massachusetts locus of literati who called Concord home from 1840 to 1860. Most of these men (virtually all of them were men) were associated with the American Transcendentalist movement, philosophy which promotes personal intuition over church doctrine as a means of reaching higher spiritual planes.
We see him standing on a summit, at the door of the infinite where many men do not care to climb, peering into the mysteries of life, contemplating the eternities, hurling back whatever he discovers there, now, thunderbolts for us to grasp, if we can, and [to] translate ...No trifle, the conception behind this work. Its honoring of Beethoven is taken to heart, with quotations from the master’s Fifth Symphony and the “Hammerklavier” piano sonata liberally strewn throughout, along — on the less exalted hand — with Ives’ typical references to American tunes like Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.
The second movement, a scherzo, is devoted to Nathaniel Hawthorne, a non-Transcendentalist, and his “wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms.” The third deals with philosopher Bronson Alcott, and his family, including his famous daughter Louisa May, of Little Women fame. The music touches on “the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day.” The concluding fourth movement follows moods of Henry David Thoreau (“Let it follow his thought on an autumn day of Indian summer at Walden ...”).
Listen to the Music
III "The Alcotts" (excerpt)
Henry Brant - A Concord Symphony,
III "The Alcotts" (excerpt)
For an example of what Brant has done, listen to the piano and orchestral excerpt from the same sonata passage in the “Alcott” movement. If you like what you hear, check out the concert — and maybe bring earplugs.More about San Francisco Symphony »
It was time for students in the San Francisco Conservatory’s symphony orchestra to knuckle under. The world-famous, dandelion-headed conductor was taking time out of his busy schedule to run a master class workshop just for them. But — gasp — was he encouraging an anarchic free-for-all?
“Don’t do anything correct,” he insisted. His next command was the order of business for last Thursday evening.
“Play Wagner!” exhorted Sir Simon Rattle, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.
For some young musicians just learning to play together, the “infernal machine” can be the orchestra itself. Not, however, for those expert and passionate San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra players.
Under conductor Donato Cabrera, they will take on the subtle and intensely rewarding Enigma Variations of Edward Elgar, Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony No. 92, and a crazy whiz-bang work that’s full of surprises, Christopher Rouse’s “orchestral etude”
More about San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra »
Wouldn’t it be nice if each composer on a program could have his own, ideal interpreter? Not so Friday night at the San Francisco Symphony concert, where hyperkinetic guest conductor Osmo Vänskä proved to be a godsend for John Adams, adequate in Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, and too much of a whirlwind for Antonín Dvořák. The Symphony players responded magnificently wherever Vänskä led them, even when misguided.
If you are looking for a gift for someone beginning their odyssey into classical music, you could do worse than send them the latest DGG sampler release of repertoire standards spiced with two dances by the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez.
Why? The conductor is Gustavo Dudamel, product of Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema who has just taken over the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Would you rather focus on atoms, or planets? Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas chose both and overindulged a bit in one for Saturday’s San Francisco Symphony concert. It began with music of the Zen-inspired Italian Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), whose Hymnos took 13 minutes to elaborate just three elemental notes — D, E, and B-flat. After intermission came the note-o-rama described by its composer as “chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered,” the Symphony No. 5 of Gustav Mahler.
This you can experience — what a Latina immigrant endured on her arrival in the U.S. and saw fireflies for the first time — when you hear one of the testimonios (testimonies) set to music by composer Gabriele Lena Frank at the Berkeley Symphony’s season-opening concert under its new music director, Joana Carneiro.
Thanks to an innovative grant, Frank had the opportunity to work with Latino immigrants in one of the less-predictable destination cities, Indianapolis; internalize their stories over time; and translate their hopes and dreams into the orchestral suite Peregrinos (Pilgrims). Frank herself is no stranger to diversity, having a Chinese/Peruvian mother and a Jewish/Lithuanian father.
“We’re at too important a moment of history to not look for connections in the community,” Frank, a resident of Berkeley, relates in a PBS documentary chronicling the creation of her work (shown two days before the concert — details here). “When I’m looking at my own truth and my own humanidad, my own humanity, I try to keep on with creating music and with everything that I’ve got, to tell a story that really resonates.” Like Béla Bartók’s masterpiece Concerto for Orchestra that will conclude the program, Peregrinos is in five movements.
Peregrinos/ Pilgrims: A Musical Journey
The concert launches the Symphony’s first season with Music Director Carneiro. Each concert includes a work by at least one living composer, along with fairly heavy-duty favorites from the standard repertoire. It’s always a test to see how brilliantly any conductor can handle the alternating hell-bent, then deliberately sluggish, pacing of the Bartók concerto’s last movement, and finally bring off its final flourish, a race to the skies that leaves hearts in throats when done well. You probably can ask Carneiro yourself how she’ll manage it if you attend her interview by pianist Sarah Cahill at the Berkeley Public Library on Saturday, Oct. 10, at 3:00 p.m.
The concert opens with music by another Berkeley composer, John Adams’ Chairman Dances, derived from his groundbreaking opera Nixon in China. It’s worth fox-trotting up to Zellerbach Hall to give it a listen.More about Berkeley Symphony »