Monday, March 6, 2017

Some Thoughts About Conductors Making Their SFS Debuts Next Season

Early this afternoon the San Francisco Symphony and its Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas announced plans for the 2017–2018 season. As usual, the season will be a generous one with considerable diversity. There is sufficient breadth to account for a wide variety of preview perspectives, each involving a different area of interest. However, given how much I find myself using this site to try and tease out the nature of performance, I find that every season I look forward to those conductors who will be encountering SFS for the first time.

Next season there will be three of them, Jakub Hrůša, Edward Gardner, and Daniel Harding. I hope I am not the only one with a long enough memory to recall that one of them, Harding, will not be a stranger to Davies Symphony Hall. Perhaps I remember him because he takes me back to a time when I was just beginning to find my footing in the complex task of writing about the elaborate relationship between performing and listening. In October of 2010 Harding visited Davies as part of the Great Performers Series when he conducted the Staatskapelle Dresden.

The program was very much a “meat and potatoes” affair following the conventional overture-concerto-symphony structure. The concerto soloist was Rudolf Buchbinder, a pianist whom, at that time, I had known only through his recordings, particularly of the sonatas of Joseph Haydn. The concerto selection was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 54 (fourth) piano concerto in G major; and the “symphony pairing” was Johannes Brahms’ Opus 73 (second) symphony in D major. For the overture Harding turned to Robert Schumann, who served somewhat as a “bridge” between Beethoven and Brahms; and the selection came from the Opus 115 incidental music that Schumann had composed to be performed in conjunction with a reading of Lord Byron’s dramatic poem in three “acts” Manfred. (The scare quotes emphasize that Byron had not intended his poem to be staged and thought of it as a “metaphysical” drama.)

Harding will return to Davies, this time to lead SFS, in April of 2018. Once again his concerto selection will come from Beethoven, Opus 37 (the third) in C minor. Paul Lewis, a pianist whom I have seen only thanks to San Francisco Performances, will be the soloist. This time, however, Beethoven will be followed by Richard Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony,” his Opus 64. The duration of this work, usually around 50 minutes, is sufficiently extended that combining concerto and symphony should make for a full program.

Just as interesting is likely to be the “Anglo-American” approach to programming that will be taken by Gardner in March of 2018. Gardner will bring his English sympathies to the SFS podium to lead the four “Ritual Dances” that Michael Tippett composed for his three-act opera The Midsummer Marriage. The American side will, in turn, be represented by George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” However, to make the affair a bit more international, the soloist will be the Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski, who is no stranger to Davies.

For his part, Hrůša will prepare a program of music from his native Czech Republic for his SFS debut in October of 2017. His overture will be Antonín Dvořák’s “Carnival.” Bedřich Smetana will be represented by the most familiar symphonic poem from his Má Vlast (my homeland) cycle, “Vltava,” named for the river known as the Moldau in German. He will conclude the program with the orchestral rhapsody that Leoš Janáček composed based on Nikolai Gogol’s novel Taras Bulba. This piece is structured in three movements, each of which is based on the death of one of the three major characters, Taras Bulba himself and his two sons, Andrei and Ostap.

Taken as a whole these three programs are likely to provide new perspectives on both familiar and unfamiliar music, one of many reasons to look forward to the coming SFS season.

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