Sunday, December 4, 2011

This will be the Week that Was

In covering the Centennial Season of the San Francisco Symphony over on, I have tried to be both polite and persistent in expressing my disappointment at how little attention has been devoted to the actual “birthday” of the Symphony.  This took place on December 8, 1911;  and the date only became fixed in my consciousness after I read about it in Larry Rothe’s book, Music for a City, Music for the World:  100 Years with the San Francisco Symphony.  Indeed, one of the delights of Rothe’s book was that the image of the program for that first concert was reproduced;  and, when I reviewed the book for, I made it a point to include not only the image but a text summary of the selections that were performed:
  1. The prelude to the first act of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger
  2. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Opus 74 symphony in B minor, his sixth (“Pathétique”)
  3. An orchestration of the theme and variations movement from Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/75 string quartet in G major (the theme being the “Emperor’s Hymn”)
  4. Franz Liszt’s “Les préludes”

    I continue to be saddened by the absence of any of these works from the current Symphony season but was at least pleased to see that both the date and the program were acknowledged on the Contents page of the Datebook section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

    This week, however, I may take some comfort in irony.  December 8 happens to be the date that will begin the week’s series of subscription concerts;  but more interesting is that, as part of the Centennial celebration, those concerts will be preceded by a two-day visit by the Boston Symphony Orchestra as part of the American Orchestra Series, one of the most promoted highlights of the Centennial Season.  Part of the irony is that the Boston Symphony had a role of its own to play in San Francisco’s musical life:  The Boston Symphony, under the baton of Karl Muck, was one of the featured performers at the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition and gave thirteen performances in conjunction with this event.  Indeed, as Leta Miller observed in her recent book, Music & Politics in San Francisco:  From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War, the popularity of the Boston visitors was a sign of public “ennui” with how Henry Hadley was running the newly-formed San Francisco Symphony.

    However, there is an additional edge of irony around the more general theme of honoring history.  It turns out that 2012 will be a major anniversary year for the Boston Symphony, because the first concert in the Berkshires of the Tanglewood Music Festival took place on August 5, 1937.  (This was an outgrowth of the Berkshire Music Festival, which was initiated by Henry Hadley, Associate Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, in 1934 and featuring performances by the Philharmonic.)  This 75th anniversary will be celebrated by reproducing two programs from that initial season.  The 2012 Festival will begin on July 6 with a performance of the same program that began the 1937 concert series:  the third of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leonore overtures, Opus 72a, followed by two of his symphonies, Opus 67 in C minor (the fifth) and Opus 68 in F major (the “Pastoral” sixth).   This will be followed later in the season by a reproduction of an all-Wagner program from the 1937 season.

    I do not know whether this amounts to a significant difference in attitude towards history between Boston and San Francisco.  However, regular readers know that I assign considerable signification to that attitude, even taking the extreme position that our ability to think historically may be related to the more fundamental capacity for time-consciousness.  Furthermore, I feel that knowledge of history is necessary in preparing any performance of music of the past (even when that past may stretch back only a matter of months), regardless of whether or not the performer is seeking an explicitly “historically informed” interpretation.  Given how rarely I am discontent with performances here in San Francisco, my guess is that most of the musicians themselves understand this appreciation for history;  but, as we all know, the circumstances under which musicians perform almost always depend on some body of individuals who are not, themselves, musicians.

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