The opening night of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) is party time in and around the environs of Davies Symphony Hall. Food, drink, and fashion take priority over all things musical; and it sometimes feels as if there is more action in the lobby and the aisles than there is on stage. Nevertheless, those on stage are the prime beneficiaries of all that hoopla; and they show their thanks by doing what they do best … making music. If that music was incidental to many (most?) in the Davies audience area, there were still moments when we were all reminded that SFS does, indeed, deserve to be celebrated.
The most significant of those moments came when Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) decided to remind the audience of a coming landmark event. In less than a month, on October 3, Steve Reich will celebrate his 80th birthday. While Reich will be honored more extensively this coming Sunday, last night’s program was notable for including one of his relatively few compositions for large instrumental ensemble, entitled simply “Three Movements.”
In many ways the Bay Area was responsible for how Reich became Reich, so to speak. He earned his Master’s degree at Mills College, where he studied with both Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud. However, Mills was also where he undertook his first approaches to using tape recordings in his composition. He then became one of the pioneering members of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, working alongside other “experimental” composers such as Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley.
Tape recording technology provided Reich with the idea of prioritizing repetition and phase shifting as fundamental grammatical constructs for composition. In the spring of 1970 the Guggenheim Museum in New York organized a small concert series featuring three adventurous approaches to making music. Reich gave one of those concerts at which his “Four Organs” was premiered. (The other two concerts presented Philip Glass and the Sonic Arts Union, respectively.) “Four Organs” subsequently made its way to Carnegie Hall in 1973, where it nearly caused a riot. One of the organists at that performance was MTT. MTT would later conduct Reich’s The Desert Music with the Brooklyn Philharmonic when the piece was performed at a Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Reich composed “Three Movements” a few years after The Desert Music. MTT gave this piece its first SFS performance in February of 1995, and last night was the first time since then that SFS had performed it. Reich’s music has come a long way since the San Francisco Tape Music Center planted the first seeds of his ideas for composition; but, for those of us who have been following Reich since commercial recordings of pieces like “Come Out” and “It’s Gonna Rain” were released back in the Sixties, last night’s performance felt like a perceptive retrospective glance at a composer who has achieved so much over such a rich career.
(This is probably a good place to note, as an aside, that Reich’s first home as a recording artist was ECM. The three albums he recorded on that label will be reissued as a box set at the end of this month, only a few days before his birthday. Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for this retrospective collection.)
Curiously, last night’s program featured other composers of equally prodigious accomplishment; and, in a fascinating way, they all seemed to serve as good company for each other. Thus, the Reich performance immediately after the intermission was preceded by two selections from the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart before the intermission. Mezzo Susan Graham sang “Deh, per questo istante solo” (ah, for this single instant), the music for a key dramatic turning point in the K. 621 opera La clemenza di Tito (the clemency of Titus). She also joined Renée Fleming for the duet that opens the second scene of K. 588 Così fan tutte (thus do all women) in which the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are admiring the portraits of their sweethearts. Both Fleming and Graham have a keen sense of theater, and they chose to improvise their delivery by pointing out members of the audience.
Following the Reich performance, both of them also sampled the work of another prodigious American composer, George Gershwin. Graham had no trouble abandoning inhibition when she took on “Fascinating Rhythm.” Fleming, on the other hand, made the most of her lyrical rhetoric in singing “Summertime” with the same seductive delivery she had given to Giacomo Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” (Oh, my dear papa) before the intermission. She even knew how to rise above the somewhat clichéd music behind the brief Adriana Lecouvreur aria that preceded her Puccini. If the two of them never quite made Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” as outrageous as it had been on the stage, they more than gracefully slipped back into “opera mode” to sing the “flower” duet from Léo Delibes Lakmé as a wrap-up encore.
All this more than compensated for an evening that began with a William Tell overture that never quite got the arrow to the apple.