Alexander Kahn is a Ph.D. candidate in music history and literature at UC Berkeley, where his research is focused on the Hollywood émigrés. He is also the assistant conductor of the Oakland Civic and the UC Berkeley symphony orchestras.
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On Friday night, the San Francisco Symphony offered up a unique program as part of its 6.5 series: a chance to observe three of the Symphony’s staff conductors — Benjamin Shwartz, Ragnar Bohlin, and James Gaffigan — conducting back to back. At the start of the evening, Shwartz, the orchestra’s resident conductor and director of the SFS Youth Orchestra, jokingly dubbed the program a “tag team” concert. But while there were many instances of high-level musicmaking over the course of the evening, the team was occasionally on different pages of the playbook.
Audiences jumped to their feet for standing ovations after performances by the Philharmonia on both Sunday and Monday at Davies Symphony Hall, presented by the San Francisco Symphony. The venerable orchestra was in town for a set of concerts under Christoph von Dohnányi, the ensemble's principal conductor. Consistently rated as one of the top 10 orchestras of Europe, the Philharmonia delivered impeccable intonation, phrasing, dynamics, and virtuosity, just as it has done on countless recordings. But therein lay the problem.
It has been an exciting two weeks on the podium at the San Francisco Symphony. Two of the world's most talked-about young conductors — Gustavo Dudamel and Alan Gilbert — came to town back-to-back to guest conduct the orchestra. I had the pleasure of observing both Dudamel's Rachmaninov and Stravinsky last week (see review) and Gilbert's program of Stucky, Mozart, and Nielsen on Saturday.
Last week the San Francisco Symphony offered up two quite different versions of what the ascent to heaven sounds like. Under the direction of guest conductor Myung-Whun Chung, the orchestra performed an innovative program that featured Olivier Messiaen's L'Ascension and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 ("Titan"). While the pieces were performed with virtuosity by both conductor and orchestra, the performance on Saturday fell just this side of the pearly gates.
During a discussion session that followed the Berkeley Akademie’s inaugural concert on Wednesday, musicologist Joseph Kerman reflected that many of today’s performing ensembles are seeking innovative ways of presenting classical music. Kerman’s remarks encapsulated the impetus behind the Akademie, a spin-off of the Berkeley Symphony, under the artistic direction of Kent Nagano and Stuart Canin. But while the Akademie’s innovations were both myriad and admirable, I found that the ensemble fell short of achieving its stated goals.
One of the most satisfying experiences you can have at a concert consists of being forced to reexamine your own attitude toward a piece of music. I had just such an experience on Friday, at the San Francisco Symphony's performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. Before heading into Davies Symphony Hall, I was convinced that I knew a great deal about this piece, from having performed it, studied it, read about it, and even taught it.
When I picked up my tickets at Davies Symphony Hall on Friday, the words "Mendelssohn Violin Concerto" were written in boldface across them. The San Francisco Symphony had wisely chosen to market the concert on the name recognition of the Mendelssohn chestnut and on the appeal of its interpreter, rising star Sergey Khachatryan. But while Khachatryan’s performance was indeed riveting, perhaps the evening's greatest star was the composer Charles Ives.
A substantial crowd filled St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley on Friday for the opening of Volti's 29th season. The concert, titled "Adventures in Life, Love, and Longing," presented recent works (the oldest of which was written in 1987) by six living composers, many of whom were in attendance at the performance. Four works were premieres. The evening was a pleasant reminder that the Bay Area is rich in ensembles promoting new music, and that Volti takes its place as one of the most accomplished of these ensembles.
The San Francisco Symphony, flush with the success of its European tour, played the opening subscription concert Wednesday to a fair number of empty seats. I was surprised to see this, given the orchestra's praiseworthy recent Mahler interpretations. Those who were in attendance were treated to a wonderful, if flawed, performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting a roster of internationally known soloists.