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Published Biweekly Over the Summer,
With News Updates and New Reviews
on Tuesdays

June 6, 2006

Previews

LISTENING AHEAD

A Guide to the
Bay Area's Classical
Music Scene
June 6 – 19


By Janos Gereben,
Lisa Hirsch,
Mickey Butts,
and Heuwell Tircuit

News

MUSIC NEWS

» John Mattern: Music Educator of the Year...
» Thomas Hampson's Money-Back Guarantee...
» MTT's Pas de None for a Goode Cause...
And More


By Janos Gereben

Reviews

EARLY MUSIC

War and Peace

By Anna Carol Dudley

Chanticleer
6/4/06

SYMPHONY

Mahler Par Excellence

By Heuwell Tircuit

San Francisco Symphony,
Chorus, and Soloists
Pacific Boychoir
San Francisco Girls Chorus
Michael Tilson Thomas
6/1/06

OPERA

Where There's Smoke ...

By Janos Gereben

San Francisco Opera
Maid of Orleans
6/3/06

CHORAL MUSIC

Vocal Passion

By Mickey Butts

Creative Voices
6/4/06

OPERA

The Rake Triumphant

By John Bender

West Bay Opera
The Rake's Progress
6/3/06

CHAMBER MUSIC

Lowering the Bar

By Heuwell Tircuit

Alexander String Quartet
Turtle Island String Quartet
6/4/06

LISTENERS' BOX

Responses to
Recent Issues






Last Week's Issue

Davies Hall Stage

Mickey Butts
Executive Director, Editor, and Publisher


We are publishing a full issue this week, according
to our new biweekly schedule. Next Tuesday we will
update the site with news and new reviews.



In Love With Excess


By Janos Gereben


As the San Francisco Symphony opens its summer festival this week, the time is right to take a good look at something whose very title speaks of romantic excess: "Romantic Visions: From Paradise to the Abyss."

Almost for as long as professional symphony orchestras have existed, there have been summer programs, usually outdoor concerts that present mostly light-to-standard classics. San Francisco, which also has its "Summer in the City" concert series, never quite settled for the routine, offering music of interest going back to the Seiji Ozawa and Edo de Waart years.

Still, it was Michael Tilson Thomas' arrival at the helm of the S.F. Symphony in 1995 that signaled the beginning of consistently substantial and challenging summer fare. Right off the bat, MTT programmed "An American Festival," giving Ives, Antheil, Cowell, and others their long overdue day in the sun. He followed up four years later with such "American Mavericks" as John Adams, Lou Harrison, the Kronos Quartet, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Ives again, and so forth.

The lineup of festivals


Inevitably, programming fell back on the tried-and-true some years, with a Beethoven festival here, a Mozart event there. But when you look at the past decade, it's been a good mix:
  • 1996 An American Festival
  • 1997 Celebrations of the Sacred and Profane
  • 1998 Mahler Festival
  • 1999 Stravinsky Festival
  • 2000 American Mavericks
  • 2001 Mozart Festival
  • 2002 Russian Festival
  • 2003 Innocence Undone: Wagner, Weill, and the Weimar Years
  • 2004 Beethoven's Vienna: Scenes From a Musical Revolution
  • 2005 "Of Thee I Sing": Yiddish Theater, Broadway, and the American Voice
Then, for 2006, MTT tried something new, turning the summer festival over to James Conlon, the American-born conductor making a big name for himself in Europe and returning home just in the past year or so — and now visiting San Francisco for the first time in 25 years. In Europe, Conlon headed major opera and symphony organizations in Paris and Cologne. He is now taking over the music director's post of the Los Angeles Opera from Kent Nagano, and, besides continuing with guest appearances around the world, he is the new music director of the Chicago Symphony's Ravinia Festival.

Conlon's choice is to highlight the music of romanticism, the movement in literature and art that celebrates nature (rather than intellect), life's exciting and mysterious qualities, along with — from a critical point of view — "impractical" romantic ideals and attitudes. Romanticism began in the late 18th century, hit its stride in 19th century Europe, and had a strong post-Wagnerian revival/hangover in the early 20th century in the early works of Schoenberg (Gurrelieder), most prominently with Richard Strauss' operas and symphonic works (all the way to the mid-20th century), and in the person of the still only marginally known Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942).

From Verdi to Zemlinsky


The most unusual aspect of Conlon's festival has to do with that last phase. Yes, there will be Liszt (the "Dante" Symphony), Tchaikovsky (Francesca da Rimini), and Verdi (the humongous Requiem, as a glorious bookend in gigantism to last week's Mahler Eighth Symphony), but the topic at hand is the June 9-10 programs of Zemlinsky's complete Florentine Tragedy and dances from three works based on supreme romanticist Oscar Wilde: Zemlinsky's The Dwarf (Der Zwerg), Strauss' "Salome (yes, the one with veils), and Franz Schreker's The Birthday of the Infanta.

Conlon is nothing if not consistent. Four years ago, when I last interviewed him (at the Cincinnati May Festival, which he has led for the last 27 of that festival's astonishing 132 years), he enthused about his upcoming appearance at La Scala, directing A Florentine Tragedy. He said, back in 2002, "I am a Zemlinsky nut, love Der Zwerg above all." And here he is, in 2006, about to conduct those two works in Davies Hall. What's the reason for his fascination with Zemlinsky?

Conlon — winner of the Zemlinsky Prize, recipient of awards for his recordings of the composer's works — speaks of the composer's "strident harmonies ... his stretching of the 12-tone structure, and his ability to bring literature and music together." Zemlinsky had a pivotal role in modern music: This student of Brahms was the only teacher Schoenberg ever had. (Schoenberg eventually married Zemlinsky's sister Mathilde.) Alban Berg and Anton Webern were Zemlinsky's students and protégés, along with Alma Schindler, later to marry another composer championed by Zemlinsky: Mahler.

The joker is Wilde


Another consideration in Conlon's programming was to play music inspired by Wilde. "It has always struck me how widespread the influence of Oscar Wilde is on non-English composers," he said, as he was preparing for the trip to San Francisco. The chamber opera Florentine Tragedy is based on Wilde's story about the rich merchant Simone (sung at the festival by James Johnson) and his wife Bianca (Kate Aldrich), whose "romantic excess" is in realizing their love only when Bianca goads her husband into killing her lover (Kim Begley). As the title indicates, the story takes place in Florence, a city that figures prominently in Conlon's larger picture.

"There is a 'Florentine thread' here," he says, what with Dante (the Liszt connection) and the city's role in the humanities, something Conlon will discuss in detail during his preconcert lectures. And then, when you mention the Verdi Requiem, Conlon's Bernsteinesque proclivity to trace cultural connections fairly explodes: "Verdi wrote most of it on the death of Alessandro Manzoni, the writer responsible for establishing the Italian language as we know it. Before him, there were as many as 2,000 dialects, and it was Manzoni who made Tuscan the language of literature, the standard language of the country — just as Dante legitimized Italian cosmology by departing from Latin. And so we have Verdi, coming out of this background, agnostic, anticlerical (like Shakespeare), but contributing this great romantic statement of faith to music."

Lacking in definition


The only way to stump Conlon is to ask him the question: What is romanticism? The man who has so much to say (in words and in music) about the subject refuses to attempt a definition, saying that it's inevitably limiting and "wrong." Still, the components of romanticism are obvious: moody, meandering, abandoned, ambiguous, suspenseful, excessively dramatic, tense, mysterious ... you know it when you hear it.

Excess plays a leading role in the S.F. Symphony's description of the subject: "Romantic composers created their own brand of excess — they looked to the grotesque for inspiration, expanded the orchestra to create new sounds of greater intensity, went beyond conventional forms in a search for perfect expression. In the last half of the 19th century and the opening years of the 20th, these artists were breaking boundaries. In this music, excess is a good thing: the excess of rich orchestral textures and great waves of engulfing sound."

Ambiguity, on the other hand, is a main consideration in Leonard Bernstein's magnum opus on the subject, the 1973 Norton Lectures at Harvard, titled The Unanswered Question. Bernstein traces the cresting of tonal ambiguity to the same period Conlon is interested in: the post-Wagner/preatonal early 20th century "school" of, yes, composers Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, and their ilk.

Competing for the Teutonic grand prix


Mahler, Bernstein says, pushed beyond the Wagnerian excess that had appeared to be a blind alley. After Tristan, "... problems have grown to a point necessitating some radical solution. The works have become not only chromatically unmanageable, but unwieldy in sheer size as well." Along with the gigantic (and ultraromantic, gloriously excessive) Gurrelieder, "composers like Reger and Pfitzner were vying with each other for some kind of Teutonic grand prix, to be awarded for the longest, thickest, and most complex piece in the world."

Hyper-romantic egomania eventually resulted in both the late Schoenberg's (and his successors') "atonality" and Richard Strauss' use and containment of romantic ambiguity and excess. Bernstein, however, also points out an interesting connection between two composers important to Conlon's festival: Liszt and (Zemlinsky student) Schoenberg. "One of the most famous pre-Schoenberg attempts at a 12-tone row — dating from the 1850s, if you can believe it — is the opening theme of Liszt's 'Faust' Symphony. Here, all 12 tones are immediately revealed, again with no harmonic support, and with no repetitions."

And, in between all the exciting and complex connections and developments, there is that chronological and substantive arch of romanticism, as exemplified in "Romantic Visions: From Paradise to the Abyss." Coming now to Davies Hall, complete with lectures, symposia, documentation, program notes, and avid discussions. Be there, unambiguously, even excessively.

(Janos Gereben is a regular contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice. His e-mail address is janosg@gmail.com.)

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©2006 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved.

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From September 1, 1998, to June 6, 2006, SFCV has published, in addition to our weekly features, Music News, and Listening Ahead columns, 2,426 reviews of Bay Area performances by: 52 symphony orchestras (513 reviews), dozens of recital presenters (426 reviews), 40 opera companies (336 reviews), 93 chamber groups (291 reviews), 37 new-music ensembles and programs (261 reviews), 37 early-music ensembles (192 reviews), 34 choral groups (154 reviews), 15 music festivals (102 reviews), 24 chamber orchestras (97 reviews), six musical theater groups (15 reviews), as well as numerous world music groups (14 reviews), youth music ensembles (12 reviews), and other organizations (13 reviews).

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Mickey Butts, Executive Director, Editor, and Publisher
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