Monday, March 09, 2015


Thomas Adès made his San Francisco Symphony conducting debut last week, and led what might be the most interesting program of the entire season.

It opened with Ives's The Unanswered Question, and I am deeply embarrassed to say that I have obviously never heard it before, because, you know, I would have remember a work consisting of offstage strings, four flutes, and one trumpet. The string ensemble was positioned somewhere at the back of Davies at orchestra level, perhaps in the little air lock between the lobby and the hall itself: I know this because I chatted briefly with one of the double-bass players before the program started, admiring the instruments themselves. (What I didn't say: on stage, the double-bass players and their instruments all look eight feet tall. They are actually typical heights and the instruments are big but not enormous.) You can guess that the playing was gorgeous, with the solemn hymnlike strings the most conventionally beautiful, Mark Inouye out front, all alone with his lyrical trumpet, and the chattering flutes at the back of the stage. Adès conducted the flutes, Inouye conducted himself (without music), and Christian Baldini conducted the strings.

What a marvelous and enigmatic work! I don't have the answer, either.

Next came Darius Milhaud's famous jazz/classical mashup, La Creation du Monde. Someone forgot to tell me how Klezmery it sounds, but since Milhaud was Jewish, why was I surprised? I sound the performance slower and a little duller than I was expecting; it sounded closer to 20 than 16 minutes, but I was not timing it, either. There were some balance issues, which may have been the fault of the enormous hall, but maybe it's just not reasonable to expect to hear the tiny number of strings over the sax, brass, and piano. Again, fabulous performance from all involved.

Sibelius's Luonnotar got its first SFS performances, with Dawn Upshaw taking the soprano solo. It's only ten minutes long, an extremely beautiful and expressive ten minutes. I wish they'd played it again, because when will we ever hear it again? The vocal line swoops around a lot and has lots of little appogiaturas; Upshaw sang very expressively, her voice sounding both bigger and quite a bit darker than when I last heard her years ago. It also seems to have some late-career loosening of the vibrato, alas. I chatted briefly with my seat neighbor during intermission, and he said he'd heard it (on record, I think), with Karita Mattila, who would be absolutely perfect for it.

The entire second half of the program was devoted to Adès's newish piano concerto, In Seven Days, with the solo played by Kirill Gerstein.

The first thing we do, let's kill all the videographers: this is fifth time I've seen classical works accompanied by video, and of the several hours of video involved, I thought about 1/5th in any way enhanced the music.

In this case, Tal Rosner's videos were simpleminded, obvious, and hugely distracting. The trendlet toward doing video with music must be some kind of an attempt to meet the real or imagined desire of younger people for visual stimulation to go with the music. I wound up closing my eyes for quite a bit of the piece, in any event, because the music was a hell of a lot more interesting than the videos. I had exactly the same opinion of Tal Rosner's video the last time his work accompanied a piece by Adès, so again: just stop.

(Or if you have to continue, get the artists who did the video and camera work for last month's SoundBox, because that stuff really worked and was just artistically far superior to what I saw on Friday.)

I wish I had taken notes during In Seven Days, because it is a big piece, around 35 minutes long, and there is a whole lot going on. It sort of has movements, or at least, the composer has assigned names to the different sections, but there are no pauses or breaks, just connections and continuations. The opening, called "Chaos - Light - Dark" was anything but chaotic, to my ear; it was lightly scored with upper strings and, I think, a flute or two, polyphonic, and delicate. I suppose I should not base my expectations on Haydn's extremes, eh?

After that, I more or less lost track of the sections, between the complexity and density of the piece and having my eyes closed. I liked what I heard, which was imaginative and colorful and, at times, overloaded enough that I think the central sections might benefit from a little pruning of the orchestration: fairly typical Adès, in other words. Gerstein had quite a long and difficult part and played beautifully throughout. But, you know, Tom, that sonority with the crotales and high piano? I know exactly where you stole it from and I can't be the only one. (Stravinsky's placement was better, by the way.)

And speaking of the composer, he conducted very well; I can't tell whether the issues I sort of heard with the Milhaud could be more attributed to the piece, Davies, or his conducting. Everything else seemed fine.

Here are the program notes for In Seven Days, which I plan to read.

Tattling: Perhaps a number of audience members lost track of the fact that this was a 6:30 program. There were quite a few empty seats for the Ives, including the four or five to the left of me in Row M. Between the Ives and Milhaud, several young women sat down there, but I can't say they were very attentive: during the Sibelius, as I was debating a chat with an usher during intermission, my neighbor to the right very quietly asked them to please put away their phones. They did so - and then did not come back for In Seven Days.


Civic Center said...

Saw it on Saturday. The string section for the Ives was in the lobby next to the bar, with the back doors to the auditorium open to let the sound eke in. The Milhaud is a wonderful, lively piece but Ades' conducting was sluggish and just about ruined it. Loved Dawn Upshaw and the Sibelius, and also "In Seven Days," but the video was a 90s screensaver annoyance that was really intrusive.

Lisa Hirsch said...

"90s screensaver annoyance" is perfect, thank you. I kept thinking of the video that originally opened Zambello's Ring in the first bringup of Rheingold: it was laughable, very much "Space, the final frontier."

Dr.B said...

But what is the question?