Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Next Season at Symphony

As I observed last month, David Gockley has planned the 2009–10 season of the San Francisco Opera in a way that shows sensible respect for the current economic hard times, thus reflecting the same strategy that can be observed at London's Royal Opera House. The 2009–10 schedule for the San Francisco Symphony has now been released; and I have to confess that it seems more than a bit more ambitious and risky, particularly for a performing ensemble that has to come up with a new program almost every week over approximately a ten-month period. I have now made my first pass through this list and would like to highlight (with some annotation) some of the events that are likely to be the most interesting and/or satisfying. This list will be nothing more than highly subjective first impressions, so I welcome any points of view that either challenge or support it. First of all, here is the clarification about place and time:

All events are in Davies Symphony Hall except where indicated [the Flint Center being in Silicon Valley]; (m) denotes matinee.

Not counting the material for the opening gala, Gustav Mahler will lead the way at the beginning of the new season:

Sept. 16, 17, 19, 20 (m) -

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano. Mahler: "Rückert-Lieder," Symphony No. 1.

Sept. 23, 24, 25, 26 -

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor and piano; Thomas Hampson, baritone. Mahler: "Origins and Legacies," including "Songs of a Wayfarer," Piano Quartet, selections from Symphonies 2, 3 and 7, early songs and Scherzo from Hans Rott's Symphony in E Major.

Sept. 30, Oct. 1, 2, 3 -

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. Scelsi: "Hymnos"; Mahler: Symphony No. 5.

This should make for an interesting approach to learning how to listen to Mahler. I am not, as a rule, particularly big on offering excerpts; but, as I hope my writing has made clear, I feel very strongly about the idea of "listening in context." Thus, I am all for providing context through a project like the "Origins and Legacies" program that Thomas has conceived. My knowledge of Rott comes entirely from Henry-Louis de La Grange's massive Mahler biography. Rott was a fellow student at the Vienna Conservatory. De La Grange introduces him to the reader in conjunction with a profile of the Conservatory's director, Josef Hellmesberger, Sr. Here are two sentences that set the context:

This confirmed traditionalist [Hellmesberger] was, needless to say, extremely distressed by the turbulence of such young students as Hugo Wolf, Hans Rott, and Mahler. The last mentioned was often reprimanded for having "behaved insubordinately," and, as for Wolf, he was dismissed outright in March 1877 for breaking one of the rules.

In that respect I also took interest in the idea of coupling Mahler's fifth symphony with a 1963 composition by Giacinto Scelsi, who never seemed to be "distressed" by turbulence in his own approach to composition.

Oct. 22, 23, 24 -

Osmo Vänskä, conductor; Yundi Li, piano. John Adams: "Slonimsky's Earbox"; Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Dvorák: Symphony No. 7.

Oct. 28, 30 (Friday 6.5), 31 (Flint) -

Osmo Vänskä, conductor; Vadim Repin, violin. Aulis Sallinen: Symphony No. 1; Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Beethoven: "Coriolan" Overture, Symphony No. 8.

The last time Vänskä came to Davies, I was delighted to experience an understanding that was as adept with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as it was with his fellow Finns, both the more traditional Jean Sibelius and the contemporary Kalevi Aho. This time he will undertake a broader repertoire that will again recognize Sibelius and couple him with Sallinen. Given his versatility, it will also be interesting to hear the approach he takes to Adams.

Nov. 27, 28, 29 (m) -

Ragnar Bohlin, conductor; Malin Christensson, soprano; Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Lothar Odinius, tenor; Anders Larsson, baritone; San Francisco Symphony Chorus; Ragnar Bohlin, director. Bach: "Christmas Oratorio."

This work is basically a cycle of six cantatas for Advent services, and it is a pity that it is not performed more often. The Symphony has a rather good track record for summoning the proper modern-instrument resources for performing Johann Sebastian Bach; and I was certainly happy when I heard the Chorus sang the BWV 232 mass setting in B minor several years ago. This will also be a good opportunity to become more familiar with Bohlin's conducting.

Dec. 9, 10 (m), 11, 12 -

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano. Schubert/Webern: "German Dances"; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4; Webern: Symphony; Beethoven: Symphony No. 5.

This may well turn out to be the most interesting program of the entire season by virtue of the decision to couple Ludwig van Beethoven at his most "monumental" with Anton Webern in his capacities as both orchestrator and composer. As is clear from his "Path to the New Music" lectures, Webern attached great importance to the ability to listen to Beethoven with an acutely understanding ear; and he may well have acquired that priority from his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, whose Fundamentals of Musical Composition draws so heavily on Beethoven for examples that the editors included the following Explanatory Note:

All citations of musical literature which do not specify the composer refer to works by Beethoven.

Placing Webern's symphony between two works of Beethoven should provide an opportunity for our understanding of Beethoven to influence our understanding of Webern and vice versa.

Feb. 18 (m), 19, 20 -

Herbert Blomstedt, conductor; Michael Grebanier, cello. Haydn: Cello Concerto No. 1; Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, "Eroica."

Feb. 24, 25 (m), 26 -

Herbert Blomstedt, conductor; Mozart: Symphony No. 36, "Linz"; Bruckner: Symphony No. 6.

Blomstedt's visits are always interesting (usually as much to Symphony members as to the audience). Having experienced Kurt Masur's approach to Anton Bruckner, I welcome the opportunity to compare it with Blomstedt's. Furthermore, now that Thomas has demonstrated his own chops for the "Eroica," Blomstedt's reading should make for a fascinating comparison.

March 11, 12 (Friday 6.5), 13, 14 (m) -

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Laura Claycomb, soprano; Katarina Karnéus, mezzo-soprano; San Francisco Symphony Chorus; Ragnar Bohlin, director. Mahler: Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection."

This is another work that deserves regular listening; and Thomas always comes back to previously-performed works with new perspectives.

June 17, 18, 19 -

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor and piano; Yuja Wang, piano. Poulenc: Sonata for Piano Four Hands; Stravinsky: Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra; Villa-Lobos: "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 9; Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; Stravinsky: "The Rite of Spring."

This is such a fascinating assortment that I am really intrigued as to how it will come together as an entire program. It will also provide the opportunity to hear Wang in three different contexts, which is rare for a visiting soloist. I have to confess that The Rite of Spring is one of the first works I heard Thomas conduct after I moved to the Bay Area, and it was one of my most memorable experiences of the work. It is hard for me to resist the opportunity to hear him approach to work again.

Among the "special events," one event stands out among all the others:

Nov. 20-21 -

Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Simon Rattle. 11/21: Brahms/Schoenberg: Piano Quartet No. 1; Brahms: Symphony No. 1. 11/22: Wagner: Prelude to Act I of "Die Meistersinger"; Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1; Brahms: Symphony No. 2.

As I have frequently observed, there is much to be said for the Brahms-Schoenberg connection. However, Richard Wagner is usually out of place in such a context. It will be interesting to see what Rattle does to present his music as a "prelude" to Schoenberg's chamber symphony, rather than the opera for which it was intended.

The other important visit will take place under the "Great Performers Series:"

May 10 & 11 -

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano. 5/10: John Adams: "City Noir"; Mahler: Symphony No. 1. 5/11: Bernstein: Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety"; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, "Pathétique.

Having heard Dudamel conduct the San Francisco Symphony, I now very much want to hear him with his "home base." I am particularly interested to hear how he will bring Mahler to "Michael's house." Myung-Whun Chung did this in January of 2008 with the same symphony; and he summoned a compelling performance through what I called "the musical version of stare decisis," all the more interesting because he had applied the same strategy to Olivier Messiaen in the first half of his program. Coupling Mahler with Adams should make for a markedly different context, and I am curious as to how Mahler will fare through this programming decision.

As I wrote in introducing this selection, these choices are all products of the arbitrariness of my personal taste. They all have the potential to expand our capacity for being better listeners, but I have every reason to believe that the same can be said of the concerts I did not include in my list. We all have every reason to look forward to the coming season in its entirety.

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