Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) concluded its first season under the leadership of Wattis Foundation Music Director Christian Reif. Over the course of the three concerts he prepared this season, Reif took in an impressive breadth of diversity, endowing each program with just the right balance between discovery and encounters with the familiar. Yesterday afternoon he extended that boundary of discovery to take in the easily seen percussion section, which all too often seems to be there only for “special effects.”
SFSYO has a percussion section of five musicians, no one of which is set apart as the timpanist. Over the course of two relatively brief compositions, all five of them had an opportunity to take the focus of attention. The program began with Steve Reich’s “Nagoya Marimbas” with Andrew Boosalis and Jonas Koh playing the two marimbas. The remaining three members of the percussion section, Elizabeth Butler, Joshua Kao, and Awik-Ku Sering, then performed the first movement of Serbian composer Nebojša Jovan Živković’s “Trio per Uno.” The somewhat prankish title refers to the fact that performance requires the three musicians to sit around a single bass drum, while each also has his/her own set of bongo drums and a pair of small Chinese gongs.
Both of these pieces require meticulous coordination. The Reich piece follows the composer’s familiar approach to working with relatively small cells of melodic material, which then unfold through different strategies for overlay, including the phase-shifting technique that Reich had been exploring as early as his work at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Yesterday’s performance was as much an impressive display of muscle memory as it was of coordination. Each player was, of necessity, tightly focused on his own part; but it was also clear that each was constantly aware of the other. If Reich’s aesthetic was based heavily on overlay, then the each player needed to maintain aware of the overall context in order to make sure that his own “layers” would fit with the precision that Reich’s score demanded. The result was a journey that lasted only about five minutes but emerged as a delightfully refreshing way to begin the program.
Živković’s approach to composition, on the other hand, seemed to have more to do with hocketing (the process through which different voices provide notes for a common melody) than with superposition. In that respect it seemed that all three players should have exactly the same resources, one of which was shared. “Melodies” arise across the different sonorities, which include not only the bongos and gongs but also having the bass drum struck on both the skin and the rim. As in “Nagoya Marimbas,” Živković’s score unfolds as simple patterns build up length and diversity. Yet there is also this uncanny sense that one is listening to a single instrument (the “uno”), rather than the interplay of the three performers (“trio”). Nevertheless, it was interesting that the comment by Živković included in the program book discussed the “possibility of improvisation.” One has to wonder where those possibilities are and how they would be made manifest.
The full SFSYO ensemble (including all five percussionists) then assembled on stage to conclude the first half of the program, Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (Matthias the painter) symphony. Hindemith’s work on this symphony was part of his planning a full-length opera of the same name about the sixteenth-century German painter Matthias Grünewald, trying to pursue freedom of expression in his work while Germany was consumed by the repressive climate of the Peasant’s War. Grünewald is best known for the Isenheim Altarpiece, with its three configurations visible by virtue of two sets of wings. Each of the movements of Hindemith’s symphony is named for one of the panels of the altarpiece, “The Angelic Concert,” “The Entombment,” and “The Temptation of Saint Anthony.”
This symphony was very popular during my student days. Hindemith had become a major figure at Yale University. Yale was one of the schools to which I had submitted an application; and, ironically, Hindemith died in December of my freshman year. I ended up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra was one of several major American ensembles that championed his music. This was a time when his ability to compose broadly arching themes whose stepwise motion would be punctuated by bold leaps was much admired. Equally impressive was his understanding of every instrument of the orchestra, resulting in truly stunning sonorities that never sounded contrived. However, by the time of his death in December of 1963, a younger generation was beginning to dismiss him as old-fashioned; and, by the turn of the millennium, his music was pretty much in total eclipse.
Listening to the Mathis der Maler symphony was thus, for me, very much a trip down memory lane. However, it was also a first encounter with performance, rather than recording; and that encounter was reinforced by much broader listening experience acquired over the years. Thus, I was more aware of Hindemith’s use of plainchant as well as his putting a personal twist on a folk song based on a Des Knaben Wunderhorn poem, taking a direction that departed from Gustav Mahler in just about every imaginable way.
What was revived in memory, on the other hand, were the lush sonorities arising from Hindemith’s approaches to instrumentation. These were relatively traditional in their basic strategies (one of the reasons Hindemith fell out of fashion). Nevertheless, in the setting of an actual performance, they were unfailingly stunning, however conventional the “subject matter” may have been. (After all, even the nonsense verse of Edward Lear can be given a compelling reading by a good actor.) Reif certainly knew how to prepare the SFSYO and guide the players through the extensive landscape of all of Hindemith’s diverse sonorities; and, for me at least, the result was one of a joyous reunion with an almost-forgotten old friend.
If there was a down-side to Reif’s preparation of such an absorbing account of Hindemith, it was that he seems not to have had enough time left to prepare for the rest of the program. The second half was devoted entirely to Johannes Brahms’ Opus 98 (fourth) symphony in E minor. This symphony combines the best qualities of Brahms at his most cerebral with Brahms at his most expressive. However, making sure that both sides of that coin are given adequate representation is no easy matter.
The good news was that Reif had a well-considered sense of pace to carry the ensemble through the entire four-movement structure. Unfortunately, too much of the execution was noticeably ragged, particularly where the winds and brass were concerned. The result was a faint, but still distinguishable, sense of struggle behind the entire process of execution, a sense that had been noticeably absent in the first two SFSYO concerts of the season.
Was this just a case of the ensemble not being able to go the distance of the full extent of its season, not as well equipped at the very end as it had been at the very beginning? Could it had been that Reif had simply laid on too many demands in programming this final concert? Any number of explanations are feasible. The fact still remains that the entire season was highly satisfying, and it will be interesting to see how Reif moves on to his next season.