Tuesday, March 02, 2010

More on the San Francisco Symphony 2010-11 Season

First of all, you'll have a better chance of understanding my frustration with the just-announced SFS 2010-11 season if you take a look at the summary press release and at Joshua Kosman's article on the season.

Note the language in the press release: "trademark mix of engaging and adventurous programs," "exciting and innovative brand of music making," "a 33-week season of exciting programming reaching audiences in new and creative ways."

Then you take a look at the season and....there's a lot of Beethoven. The only living composer by whom we hear more than one work is John Adams, and none of those is new. Adams is, obviously, well-known in these parts, unlike Sofia Gubaidulina and George Benjamin, so it's hard to see what might be innovative or exciting about two weeks of repeats of big works by him.

Don't get me wrong. I like Adams and his music, but he's become the default representative of new music at SFS, and there are plenty of other worthy composers in the Bay Area, in California, and in the United States. SFS managed to observe big Mendelssohn and Handel anniversaries, and of course we will be hearing an awful lot of Mahler in the next couple of seasons, as in the past few, but couldn't they take note of Elliott Carter, still writing important and interesting music at the astounding age of 101?

Here's the money quote from Joshua's article:
"Sometimes, what we need to react to is the interest that exists outside of the city and internationally," Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas said in an interview. "The rest of the world is playing catch-up to what we've already done, but people here still want to share in those things."
Seriously, what exactly does that mean? I don't think I could say that with a straight face, it's so confusing. It seems to mean, everybody else is now trying to be innovative, so we can do something more conservative, but maybe not. Maybe it means, everybody wants to hear Mahler! Maybe one of my readers can explain it to me.

I note also that a friend reports that MTT apparently said at the press conference that there's only one work he's conducting next year that he has never done before, Feldman's Rothko Chapel. The previous sentence, now crossed out, was incorrect. Evidently there are a couple more works - total, three - that MTT has not conducted before. That still strikes me as odd.

So my frustration has three parts:
  • The conservatism of the season
  • The claims of innovation and excitement when five minutes of looking at the season make it clear that it's a conservative season full of greatest hits, with very little new music
  • The much more interesting and innovative seasons announced a couple of weeks ago by the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Now, I don't expect any orchestra in the world to program what I'd really like to hear, because what interests me most is music I've never heard before, or never heard live, whether it's new or very old or somewhere in between. This is why I'm excited by, of all things, Kurt Masur's upcoming Mendelssohn program: I love both the Italian Symphony and the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I think I've never heard either live.

Summing this all up, SFS is putting on what I'd call a very safe season but calling it something entirely different. We're being told that blue is yellow, and so I'm having one of those cognitive-dissonance moments. At least S.F. Opera was honest about why they're doing a season with twelve performances each of Madama Butterfly and Aida. If what MTT wants to do is revisit old favorites, maybe he could say why, and what he intends to do that'll be new or interesting with those old favorites. Maybe they could say a lot more about how they put together a season.

And on to a comment I must reply to assertion by assertion.
First of all, there can never be too much Beethoven and I for one am happy not to see him shuttled out to the "My Favorite..." summer schmaltz this time around but given the prominence he merits.
I believe there can be too much of any composer, however central to repertory or to musical history. Regular repetition has a number of bad effects: the players and conductor can get tired of the music and fall into routine performances. It's lazy program-making to keep playing the same composers over and over. The audience can become persuaded that the composers who are most repeated - and you know who they are - are the only ones worth listening to. The audience can become unwilling to be challenged or to be open to other worthy composers. The constant repeats crowd out other good music.

I would be less critical of all the Beethoven if the works were being paired with works by other composers in some interesting way. In his first season at the BSO, for example, Levine paired Beethoven with Schoenberg, and those programs were both a critical and audience success. But nothing like that is being done here.

And, seriously? Taking a ten-year break from listening to the Beethoven symphonies was one of the best things I ever did for myself musically. I heard a lot of other music, and when I tried them out again, they were newly fresh.
True, it may not be the most adventurous season, and no one will think Salonen has taken over as Music Director, but really, what is the use of all this carping when the SFS is offering the rest of its season at half price and begging people to buy tickets?
The half-price sale is over and since this was the fourth time they've done it, it's now an annual event. Having such a sale isn't the only way to sell more tickets, of course. They could look at their overall pricing policy, their programming, their scheduling, and so on.

I'm also carping about next season, not this season, which has more programs that I like.
They're following the same path SFO has traveled, hoping for similar results. I would love to see a more adventurous season too, but for now, I'm happy we aren't reading about the imminent demise of SFF and stories about how thinly spread MTT is while the orchestra is about to go under.
You'll have to explain to me, then, why it is that the LAPO and NYPO have come up with considerably more interesting seasons, with many world premieres, interesting pairings (see Brahms Unbound at LA, and Salonen's Bartok, Ligeti, and Haydn series at NY), a performer in residence who is performing several of the world premieres, etc. The NY audience has long been regarded as impossibly conservative, and yet Alan Gilbert is forging ahead, and being cheered, for his programming.

SFS is very well managed and I think there is no danger at all of them going under; the situation is not remotely comparable to the current problems at the Philadelphia Orchestra or the LA Opera.
I believe sometimes it's appropriate that we look at organizations which are important to our community and deserving of our support with a bitten tongue once in awhile.
No arts organization, no institution that is important to a community benefits from journalists and bloggers muzzling themselves.


Joe Barron said...

... but couldn't they take note of Elliott Carter, still writing important and interesting music at the astounding age of 101?

No, they couldn't. MTT doesn't like Carter and will not conduct his music. You and I have had this conversation. You said, "That's what guest conductors are for." Perhaps, but Carter might need more rehearsal time than a guest conductor can give, and in any event, you still have to get past the music director. Would MTT invite Ollie Knussen to conduct? Knussen told me once he would like to conduct the Three Occasions in Philadelphia, but nothing ever came of it.

Oh, BTW, MTT is conducting SFS in Mahler 2 in Phila. this month. Is it worth hearing?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ollie Knussen has conducted in SF several times in the last decade, so, yeah.

Sure, I think MTT's Mahler is worth hearing.

Michael Walsh said...

The funny thing is there are plenty of unheard works that still have a "safe" sound that would be big crowd-pleasers _and_ were written after 1920. We've had the good fortune to hear Lutoslawski and Ligeti at SFS, but there's a wealth of other good composers -- Hanus, Kabelac, Part, Dutilleux, Riley -- whose music manages to be both reasonably modern and audience-friendly. I refuse to believe that works by those composers wouldn't be welcomed by even the most conservative audience members.

Hell, I'd settle for more Kodaly and Martinu.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I would say that Martinu is at the top of my list of underperformed mid-century composers. I think it would great if we heard lots more Luto and Ligeti, too.

For that matter, I would not mind hearing more Britten, whom I consider underplayed by U.S. orchestras.

Anonymous said...

Several years ago SFS played the Martinu Sinfonietta, and I heard it. It was on an oddly-scheduled program: one matinee, one road show at Flint.

"Dutilleux" and "audience-friendly" are not words I was expecting to see in the same sentence.

Anonymous said...

Here's a statistic for you: I counted up and realized that I'm about to go out and write my 22nd review of a concert with Beethoven in it. That's over twice as many performances as I've covered by any other single composer.

I'm not bored by it, and I'd even be willing to go along with the proposition that Beethoven is the single greatest composer of instrumental music. But not that he's over twice as great as anybody else.

Lisa Hirsch said...

That's quite a statistic.

I would not say I am bored by Beethoven - I'm not - but the crowding-out aspect of how much he gets performed really does bug me.

Not that this is competitive or anything, but I could make a pretty good case for a few other composers being his equal as a composer of instrumental music. B***, B*****, and M***** are certainly up there; also the ever-inventive S********* and a few others.

John Marcher said...


My in-depth rebuttal (with more to come) can be found here:



John Marcher

Michael said...

I'd like to see more living composers and American composers too. But:

- Don't you value hearing great works for a second or third time? Yes, El NiƱo was done here about 10 years ago. It's worth hearing again. Pieces enter the repertoire through repeat performances. Commissions are not the only part of repertoire building, nor the only route to novelty. Superlative performances matter.

- You overlook what's new in hearing these performers do these works. It's not just the works that have never been done at SFS before. Maybe you've heard Missa solemnis many times. But the SFS and the SFS Chorus have apparently never performed it together, so I suspect it's been a long time since SFS has done it. According to Kosman's article, this will also be MTT's first time conducting it.

Mr. Walsh, I agree with your main argument. But we've had several fine Dutilleux performances over the years here, and another of his works scheduled for next season.

Regarding that MTT quote, I think Mr. Marcher nails it in his blog post.

John Marcher said...

Thank you, Michael.

Axel Feldheim said...

I think your correspondent might be mistaken about MTT saying that the Feldman is the only thing he hadn't conducted before. He also mentioned the Villa-Lobos, who is a composer he says he likes very much. And he has never conducted a complete performance of the Missa Solemnis. True, MTT was a bit vague in responding to the question, probably because he was trying to remember all the programs.

He also hinted that now that the Mahler project is wrapping up, he would like to embark on another exploratory cycle of some kind.

Henry Holland said...

Now, I don't expect any orchestra in the world to program what I'd really like to hear

For the last 10 years, every February or so I create a database of stuff I'd like to hear that's being performed all over the world, in case enough of it bunches up to justify traveling to Europe or within the US. I literally look at every season program for every opera company on the Operabase listings --hello Posnan, Poland!-- and orchestra's above the regional level in the world and it's depressing.

I've resigned myself to the fact that there might never be another production of Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus or that Maw's Odyssey isn't going to become standard rep in my lifetime, but damn! even more tonal stuff that's not the 3 B's + Mozart is hard to dig up.

What's even sadder is the utter boredom I feel when yet another Overture/short piece + concerto + symphony/big piece concert is trotted out.

The lack of imagination in structuring concerts is only matched by the utter stupidity of some of the pairings, like, say, Pintscher on an otherwise all-Mozart program or the reverse, the jaw-dropping incompetence of putting Haydn on a program with Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, the Berg 3 Pieces and the Webern 6 Pieces (aka The Second Viennese School's Greatest Hits).

But what bums me out most of all is that narrowness of vision of programmers and the calcified conservatism of most audiences means that tonal, melodic, beautiful stuff by (just to list my faves, you can all make a list I'm sure) Schreker, Szymanowski, Scriabin, Zemlinsky, Schmidt and Pfitzner rarely gets done because there's yet another Brahms symphony cycle being trotted out.

BTW, Lisa, my friend Patrick and I used to fantasize about winning a huge lottery jackpot and starting an opera company called Opera Obscura that would do five productions a year, in productions that were done exactly as the composer specified (i.e. no 3 white walls and some chairs or rocks piled on stage). Our first season was going to be:

Respighi: La Fiamma
Birtwistle: The Second Mrs. Kong
Martinu: Juliette
Zemlinsky: Der Traumgorge
Hindemith: Mathis der Maler

We didn't anticipate that there would be a second season! :-)

Anonymous said...

MTT just doesn't care any more. It's obvious he is merely treading water now (probably not really by choice), and it's obvious that is quite all right with the management, and probably most of the ancient audience. I'm surprised they are even doing the Varese.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Axel, I'll fix that, thanks.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Be interesting to know what the next Big Project will be. I hope it's as interesting as, say, James Conlon's Entartete Musik project.

Lisa Hirsch said...

John and everyone else - I'm posting some responses on John's blog at http://abeastinajungle.blogspot.com/2010/03/yesterday-san-francisco-symphony-held.html.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Unfortunately, the comment box at John's blog ate a long comment in response. Maybe I'll try to rewrite it later later, but I'll suggest you use the default Blogger comment system instead of whatever it is that ate my comments with an incomprehensible error message.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Michael - you're right about repeat performances of new works.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Harry, I agree with you on repertory, of course!

And that's a fantastic opera season. You'd need maybe $20 million to do it on a shoestring, $45 or $50 million to do it right. :)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Okay, this time John's blog accepted my comments.

Anonymous, that's certainly one possibility.

doug said...

Lisa, Thanks for your compelling and pointed piece about the disappointing if unsurprising SFS season. It is sad to see SFS go the way of SFO even in these challenging economic times. Challenge seems to inspire defeat more than opportunity, at least with the local big box arts organizations. There was a time when MTT and SFS were inventive. That time appears to be gone. Sadly, I guess I'll be waiting to go more than a few times a year until we have a new music director. Oh, and does MTT have to conduct throughout the season quite so much? Ugh.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Doug! The question remains why the LA and NY orchestra music directors, administration, and boards feel that it's good to take some chances, while SF settles into routine programming.

John Marcher said...

Henry's fantasy opera season, while interesting and one I would certainly attend, would probably have to be held at the Cafe Trieste on Market Street if it were done locally, or Z Space if it were well-publicized.

Somwhere in the comments of the posts regarding the SFS season you mentioned Traviata, Boheme, etc., as beig immediately worth dissing, but I recall you enjoying the Swenson/Villazon/Hvorostovsky Traviata as much as I did, and that was a straight down the line traditional production if there ever was one. What made it great was the quality of how well it was performed, which was at a level that I have some doubt I'll ever see again. Hence my willingness to sell my Netrebko tix last year to the first person who offered me more than twice their price.

I a way, SF is a very provincial town. I'd like to hear many of the composers on Michael W. list, but in the meantime we have what we have. I think it would be difficult to find someone who was as critical of SFO under Gockley as I. But having been knocked out by the majority of last fall's season (Otello was awful and Seraglio isn't my cup of tea), I learned a lesson that essentially is "let's wait and see." The beauty of the Bay Area is that while our larger stages can sometimes not be as adventurous as we'd like, there are numerous other, smaller companies to fill that gap.

Yes, I too would like to see the big guns set the tone, but then again, I'd like to Pamela Rosenberg and Runnicles still in charge of SFO and I know that makes mine a minority opinion to the extreme.

And when all else fails, fares from Oakland to Burbank on Southwest are relatively cheap!

Cedric said...

I am going to play the devil's advocate and offer a generous reason for the lack of interesting premieres this year: next year is the 100 anniversary and I'm hoping their saving the commission budget for that season. When MTT took over the symphony, he did it with a bang and a focus on American composers (there was a piece by Lou Harrison in his first concert I believe). So I'm hoping that next year will be when they roll out the fun stuff. Maybe it's wishful thinking, call me a dreamer.

Anonymous said...

Single greatest composer, like greatest orchestra, is a mug's game. It's just that if someone declares their belief that Beethoven is the greatest, it's not like I'm going to argue with them, even if I have other candidates. But if they say Beethoven is the ONLY great composer, I wouldn't go along with that. Even Schroeder didn't play only Beethoven.

I agree with the person who said you judge the greatness of an ensemble by the standard repertoire. And they should play the standard repertoire. Music is a performing art, and music that is not performed is dead. But be sure you pick pieces because you have something to say about them, not just because they're there. A symphony season is a large field: there's room in it to do more than one thing. The above defense of the standards is not an excuse for not doing anything else.

Immanuel Gilen said...

Allow me to butt into this conversation and be the Symphony’s apologist – I actually quite like the upcoming season – especially compared to the current one.

I find it bizarre, and –no offense– a bit gimmicky to measure innovation and adventuresome programming by the number of commissions an orchestra performs in a year – true, commissions provide livelihoods for composers and create all kinds of (short-lived) buzz, but if commissions are never played again, then this is a shortsighted and eventually ineffective way of engaging audiences in new music. This is why I really like the LA Phil’s 'Commissions Revisited' program. In this aspect, the San Francisco Symphony is doing something very interesting by playing 20th century American music like Rouse, Feldman, Cowell, Harrison, and the like. I think this is far more innovative than commissioning a new piece from a composer, playing the work once before it falls into oblivion (and let’s be honest, three quarters of American orchestra commissions fall into this category).

I also think the orchestra is doing a wide range of things. For instance, they’re doing Kurtag, Shostakovich 12 (which I’ve never seen programmed anywhere), Schnittke, Silvestrov and Dutilleux, to name only pieces composed in the last fifty years. Even then, not every program needs modern music, and if a program looks like a two-hour stretch of KDFC (like the all-Beethoven programs), then so be it – the Symphony has every right (and in my opinion duty) to respond to the large number of people for whom this is a meaningful way to experience music. As an aside, I would agree with Mr Marcher than I can never hear enough Beethoven anyways.

Which brings me to the Minnesota Orchestra that was mentioned as well; ironically, I think the principal reason that orchestra has raised its stature is by doing its BIS Beethoven cycle (and perhaps to a lesser extent their Sibelius). I’ve only seen the orchestra once on tour in New York, doing Beethoven 7 – and when they tour Europe this summer they’ll play that same work. And that’s fine – I’ll probably go again too because theirs is the best Beethoven 7 I’ve ever heard.

I think it’s a bit unfair to measure adventuresome programming by specific composers as well – I would argue the fact the orchestra hasn’t done any Carter doesn’t mean much – like a lot of people, I have no affinity for his music. It’s unfortunate that some of my favorite modern composers don’t get performances either (Glass, Paert, Gorecki, to name a few) but if MTT (like a lot of people) doesn’t love that music, then so be it – he’s doing plenty of other modern things – and in that aspect, replaying some of local composer John Adams’ music to get it in the repertoire is commendable – by the way, I don't think the orchestra played a single Adams piece in the past two seasons, so calling him the placeholder contemporary music man for the SFS is also a bit unfair in my opinion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the SFS season is perfect. I think it’s safe to say that after this centennial, we could use a break from Mahler, for instance. I also think the Bernard Labadie weeks are boring filler. Perhaps Second Viennese School enthusiasts are a bit underwhelmed. Two commissions, one of which was carried over from last year, is indeed not impressive. Like you suggest, I would be glad to see a little more music from Britten (and for me, less from Walton and Vaughan Williams). The list goes on – and indeed it should, any suggestions that we should bite our tongue are ridiculous for the reasons you've stated. But I dare you to take a look at the Minnesota Orchestra, the horrific National Symphony Orchestra season or even the Boston Symphony Orchestra (where local critics have lamented the conservative programming of thinly-spread Levine, who doesn’t do much modern music other than Carter – their main thing this year was a Beethoven cycle (no Schoenberg this time) which he pulled out of), and I think the SFS isn’t doing all that badly with their upcoming season.