Sunday, January 4, 2009

Cold Start

I have to confess that Joshua Kosman's forecast of classical music events for the coming year, as published in today's San Francisco Chronicle, left me on the cool side of lukewarm, if not downright cold. Those who have been following this blog for some time may recognize that this is a marked contrast to the way in which I reacted to the announcement of the 2008–09 season of the San Francisco Opera about a year ago. In retrospect that announcement made General Director David Gockley appear downright prescient, since the Opera was already readying itself for economic hard times while, as I put it, "the powers that be play their language games over whether or not we are in a recession." With all his cautionary strategies (reinforced with the remarks he made prior to the first performance of La Bohème), Gockley managed to end the Opera's fiscal year in the black, which is as worthy an achievement as the mounting of the most stimulating series of productions I have seen since I first became a subscriber. Unfortunately, Kosman's forecast could not take plans for the 2009–10 season into account, since, like the respective seasons for the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Performances, they have not yet been announced. So things may warm up by September, if not sooner.

Nevertheless, I am a bit disconcerted about what I feel were sins of both omission and commission in Kosman's list. From my own (biased) point of view, the greatest omission was the failure to include the final two recitals in which András Schiff will complete his cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. While I had some misgivings about Schiff's approach to the Opus 31 sonatas, this series of concerts, taken as a whole, has been highly stimulating and, as I have tried to indicate in my posts, contributed significantly to making me a better listener. These last two recitals take us into a world of "monuments;" and, while many tend to single out Opus 106 in B-flat major ("Hammerklavier") for the top of the heap, every sonata that Schiff will play is, as Tolstoy might say, monumental in its own way.

Still, I suppose any reader of Kosman's list will have some item regarded as unjustly neglected; so I would prefer to vent over his selection that fills me with the most trepidation. This is the San Francisco Performances concert of a complete performance of Philip Glass' Music in 12 Parts in Davies Symphony Hall. The last time San Francisco Performances arranged a Glass event in Davies, it was a series of three evenings, one for each of Godfrey Reggio's films (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi) with "live" performance of the music; and, from a purely organizational point of view, the event was a fiasco, primarily because San Francisco Performances had failed to organize box office operations to accommodate the number of people who wanted to attend. Thus, each evening got off to a late start, making the whole affair more than a little dissatisfying, if not just plain irritating.

However, beyond the problem of mismanaged "crowd control" was the questionable decision to use Davies for such an event in the first place. Davies is just not the place to go to watch a film, and the actual staging gave little support to either the film or the performing musicians. The result was more like a celebration of an occasion for the sake of the occasion, rather than for the sake of the material actually being performed; and this strikes me as the problem lurking behind the Music in 12 Parts event. Putting aside the question of whether or not those twelve parts should be performed consecutively in a single marathon event (which will include a break for dinner), there remains the problem that these early statements of what Glass called "the highly reductive style known as minimalism" are all works of chamber music that were originally performed in relatively intimate settings around New York. As a result it is hard to imagine that this event will be anything other than a hollow ceremony of celebration for the benefit of those who either were not around or chose not to pay attention when Glass was first struggling to make his compositional voice heard. Since I fall into neither of these categories, I fear there is nothing about this upcoming event that particularly appeals to me.

On the other hand I also fear that there is something symptomatic about such events in San Francisco. For all of the pleasures I derive from living in this city, these Glass events are far from the only examples of trying to give those who missed the boat a second chance (which turns out to miss the boat just as badly). The San Francisco Jazz Festival seems to make it a point to program ten-year anniversary performances of John Coltrane's "Ascension;" and, as I have previously written, the one I attended in 2005 was painfully disappointing. I can understand the problem that most people in the audience really have no idea what to do when confronted with an in-your-face performance of such music, just as I can understand why, much to the annoyance of Michael Tilson Thomas, the music of Anton Webern always seems to elicit nervous coughs in its most silent moments; but, while Thomas understands the nuts and bolts of performing Webern properly, the 2005 Jazz Festival performers seemed absolutely clueless about what Coltrane had been trying to do (if not totally disinterested in trying to learn about it). I suppose what it comes down to is that there is no need to celebrate "someone else's history" (so to speak) in a city that has "made its own history" (in the spirit of Karl Marx?) in so many ways; and, as is the case in so many cities, it is the people with the "money power" who end up thinking up these making-up-for-missing-the-boat events.

In spite of this rant against the San Francisco Jazz Festival, I must admit that their plans for their spring season (which happens to be a tenth anniversary) are far more promising than most of the events I found in Kosman's column. This spring the Festival will include Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner (who will be featured in their Gala event but will also give a "real" concert), Kenny Barron, Roy Hargrove, and James Carter, as well as Mingus Dynasty, which has done so much to keep the music of Charles Mingus alive and "in repertoire." Furthermore, the Festival has finally decided (or had decided for them) to abandon the Masonic Auditorium, which has done as little justice to jazz as the San Francisco Performances events in Davies have done to Glass. So the future is not that all bleak; it's just that the Chronicle did not provide a column for jazz as they had given for classical music!

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