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Storytime, With an Ambiguous Twist, at S.F. Symphony

November 7, 2017

San Francisco Symphony

If a piece of music has nonmusical inspirations or associations, it’s tempting to try hearing a narrative, even when the music resists by being ambiguous. On Friday evening at Davies Hall, the San Francisco Symphony programmed two works — Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety and Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben — that illustrated this curious point. 

W.H. Auden wrote his long poem titled The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue in 1944 while living in New York. It’s basically about four strangers meeting at a bar and trying to make sense of life in their modern, wartime world. Although Bernstein did not set out to paint the poem’s plot in music, after finishing his Age of Anxiety symphony he said he was surprised by the extent to which he indeed did. Auden disagreed, and once stated that Bernstein’s piece had little to do with his text.

Regardless of how much you think they relate, the musical form follows the poetic, and spans six brief sections. Wandering and introspective, the symphony opened with quiet, dovetailing clarinet lines that sounded, in the SFS performance, like dazed soldiers wearing wide, thousand-yard stares.

The renowned pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet soon joined the conversation. But this is not a traditional solo with stomping, flashy technique that makes one individual stand out from the rest of the ensemble. (Though Thibaudet surely did impress — the audience gave him three rounds of applause.) The piece requires subtler and more wide-ranging virtuosity. For example, the mood often felt subdued and ruminative, and Thibaudet was often the glue tying the whole ensemble together.

Although the opening theme threads through the whole work, the sections can also sound episodic. The fifth one amounts to a jazz combo between the pianist and percussionists. Thibaudet dazzled before leading to the epilogue and the return of the opening theme. There are elements in this closing number — such as trumpet fanfares, string-led swells, and dramatic crescendos — that usually indicate a transformation into triumph. Arguably, though, the piece ends with the inquisitive, uncertain vibe of the opening simply resounding much more loudly. Friday’s performance marvelously captured this elusiveness.

In the final years of the 19th Century, Strauss composed his eighth symphonic poem, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). It’s in E-flat major, the same key as Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. As the program notes explained, writing a piece that evoked Beethoven’s was a bit daring because Beethoven’s symphony was actually unpopular with conductors at the time.

Whereas Bernstein’s piece was clearly inspired by Auden’s poem, Ein Heldenleben is famous for inviting the question of who the hero was even supposed to be. Most say the piece is autobiographical, especially because it quotes or alludes to earlier works by Strauss. And at least one section was inspired by the composer’s wife, the opera singer Pauline de Ahna.

This piece is also in six sections. In contrast to the Bernstein, it opened with sweeping, full-blown fin-de-siècle orchestration to represent the work’s protagonist. Then came “The Hero’s adversaries,” full of noodling winds and heavy brass. But “The Hero’s Companion” was far more interesting. Presumably an ode to his wife — whom Strauss described as “complex” and “never twice alike” — this extended section features a violin solo that was performed by Alexander Barantschik. At times intricate, at others flirtatious, and at times echoing the orchestra’s beautiful melody, Barantschik ingeniously conveyed the complexities that Strauss appreciated in Pauline.

After a battle scene, there was an allusion-filled number that, according to the subtitle, is about peace. Surely, Strauss reworked themes from previous works into a cascading, fluid, breathtaking orchestral landscape. It gave way to the finale, “The Hero’s Retreat from the World and Completion.” As this subtitle indicates, it’s uncertain whether the work’s protagonist ends up resigned or instead fulfilled. Amid a sublime orchestra, the solo violin returned at the end with a delicate, tender line that seemed to want to fade into oblivion. But the brass and timpani simultaneously wanted transcendence or transfiguration. 

These two works were a wonderfully puzzling pair. They proved that associating music with narrative need not necessarily diminish music’s abstract nature. And the ambiguities in Age of Anxiety and Ein Heldenleben enticingly intrigued.

Jessica Balik is a flutist and has a PhD in historical musicology from Stanford University.