Sunday, March 26, 2023

California Symphony: Zemlinsky, A. Mahler, Rott

I told a friend I saw at today's California Symphony concert that I wasn't going to blog about it, but I have changed my mind.

It was the kind of program that I love to see: music I've never heard before, by three interesting composers. As it turns out, one of them, occupying well over half the concert time, wasn't nearly as interesting as I expected.

Conductor Donato Cabrera opened with a Zemlinsky overture,  Lustspiel, and it was fine; it could have used a bit more sparkle. Then we got what turned out to be the highlight of the program, contralto Sara Couden singing five songs by Alma Mahler. They are luscious, with considerable charm; Alma was talented and we can hate on Gus for pressuring her to quit composing. Couden has a gorgeous voice of a rare type and brought a beautiful line to these. I would have liked more consonants, it's true.

Then the Big Piece, Hans Rott's Symphony No. 1 in E Major, his only mature, complete symphony. Well, by "mature," what I mean is "he wrote it between the ages of 20 and 22." Now, a few composers have written masterpieces at that age - I'm looking at you, Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn - but most have not.

I'm not going to put this thing on any list of great symphonies, ever. I'm....sort of glad to have heard it once. The performance itself had some weaknesses, in the brass and in some transitional moments in the scherzo, and maybe the Lesher Center isn't the ideal venue for a work that comes with a large brass section. I scratched my head at one point where if he'd been Mahler, there would have been some nice offstage brass, but, well, he wasn't. 

This symphony is second-rate Bruckner at best: prolix, repetitive, incompetently written at times, overly long, and kinda dull! It's extremely blocky keeps starting, reaching what should be the end of a movement and restarting. You think that he has finished the last movement - people who didn't notice Cabrera's body language started to applaud - and then you get to sit through a five-minute fugue AND A CODA. The fugue was academic but competent, which did not make up for the extra ten minutes tacked on to the movement. The scherzo....I couldn't quite track all the themes and changes of tempo.

I don't even like first-rate Bruckner, with odd exceptions: Boulez's recorded 8th with the Vienna Philharmonic, the magnificent 7th that MTT conducted the week after William Bennett's tragic death. Overall, though, this music isn't for me. It must be said that I can imagine a more polished performance of the Rott; this was announced as the California premiere of the work, so most or all of the players have probably not seen it before. And I can imagine a performance where the phrasing is more natural and the work holds together better. There are recordings by Segrestrom, Hrůša, P. Järvi and others, but I am likely to give them a pass.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

San Francisco Symphony Season Announcement Date: March 28

San Francisco Symphony has announced the date of its season announcement: it's a week from today, on Tuesday, March 28, at 10 a.m. I have a page of predictions of works that might appear at SFS, because they're composed by Esa-Pekka Salonen or a collaborative partner or because Salonen has conducted them elsewhere. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

Cast Change Announcement: NY Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra

Conductor Karina Canellakis has withdrawn from some of her upcoming programs because she's expecting a child in May. Here are notes about the conductors who will leading those programs.
  • Jonathon Heyward, New York Philharmonic, April 27-29. The program is as originally scheduled:  Brahms’s Violin Concerto, with Christian Tetzlaff, Zosha Di Castri’s Lineage, and Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra
  • Osmo Vänskä, Philadelphia Orchestra, April 20-22. Perry Study for Orchestra, Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 with Inon Barnatan, Beethoven Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”)  
Best wishes to Canellakis for the easiest possible childbirth.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

VFO Beats the VPO

On Saturday night I went to Vallejo to hear the new-ish Vallejo Festival Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Conlin. I'd never heard the orchestra or the conductor before, and I'm ever so happy to report that the concert was exemplary in every way: a well-played, well-conducted, stylistically-appropriate all-Sibelius concert with a really wonderful singer. It was all deeply satisfying. This is why it's good to see whatever you can; you never know when you'll hear a better concert by a regional orchestra than you heard days earlier with a world-famous ensemble.

I did not manage to get one point into my review: this was one of the few programs I've seen where the conductor's and soloist's comments from the stage truly added to the program, owing to the ability of both to connect sincerely and openly with the audience. That is very hard to do, so even more hats off to Thomas Conlin and soprano Katherine Whyte. I'm looking forward to the next Vallejo Festival Orchestra concert, you bet.

A Head-Scratcher

The last time that I attended a program conducted by Christian Thielemann was the 2015 Bayreuth Tristan und Isolde. It was transcendentally beautiful, so stunning that I came out of Act II raving about how gorgeous it had been. I believe I used the phrase "HOLY MOTHER OF GOD" to describe it.

So when Cal Performances announced a three-day series with Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic, I looked over the programs and decided to come to tonight's Mendelssohn and Brahms concert. And hoo boy, it was the worst money I have ever spent. 

The first half of the program was the Hebrides Overture and "Scottish" Symphony. Let me sum this up briefly: Mendelssohn with no charm is no good.

The second half of the program was Brahms's Symphony No. 2, was just bad, fussy and overly controlled, with little sense of the big picture in any of the movements. (That was true of the Mendelssohn as well.) This is the most genial and sunny of the Brahms symphonies, and those qualities were also lacking. Thielemann's conducting was that of a blunt instrument, with little delicacy or grace or subtlety. 

I wonder whether I would have responded to that Tristan as I did if I had been able to see Thielemann, who was, of course, conducting from the mystic abyss, the invisible Bayreuth orchestra pit. I try not to be too influenced by what I am seeing, but Thielemann was really unpleasant to watch, in part because he looked sour and unhappy the entire time, and partly because of his particular vocabulary of movements. As I said to a friend afterward, we've had decades of visual goodness with SFS's music directors, from Blomstedt's attentive courtliness to MTT's energetic precision to Salonen's sheer grace. 

As for the VPO, let me say first that I am wary of getting too specific about the sound of any orchestra playing in Zellerbach. It's a concrete nightmare made half-decent by a Meyer Constellation system, but there's almost always something a little artificial about the sound there. The orchestra sounded...pretty good, but I would not have guessed them to be a legendarily great orchestra. The principal horn played a couple of solos very beautifully and I'd love hear more of him. The flutists were playing regular silver flutes, not the wooden instruments that you can see in some photos of the orchestra. 

The timpanist was oddly retiring or the placement of the timpani made him difficult to hear, or something. I own that I have gotten very used to the playing of SFS's principal timpanist, Edward Stephan, who is assertive and a great presence; it's possible that ten years ago I wouldn't even have noticed that the VPO timpanist wasn't very noticeable.

Thielemann and the VPO elsewhere:

  • Zachary Woolfe, NY Times. Loved the Strauss and is a bit circumspect about the other works.
  • Joshua Kosman, SF Chronicle. Loved the Strauss, thought the Schoenberg awful. "Yet there wasn’t much to savor [in the Schoenberg], as Thielemann drove the orchestra’s string players into a bare-knuckled series of confrontations. Melodies burst across the stage like missile blasts; it was as if any infusion of tenderness or lyricism would be taken as a sign of weakness." That last phrase predicted what last night was like.
  • David Bratman, SFCV. This is very even-handed and the concert didn't deserve even-handed treatment. When you're allegedly one of the greatest orchestras in the world, you should be held to the highest possible standards. See the above: I would have been a lot meaner if I'd been reviewing this program, obviously. I eventually concluded that Thielemann conducted as though he hated the music, the orchestra, the audience, and maybe himself.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Oldie But Goodie, 2018 Edition

I drafted this blog post in January, 2019, so, four years ago. I have no idea why I never published it. So, for your amusement, my look back at 2018:

People are publishing their 2018) best-of lists. As usual, I haven't heard enough new CDs to have opinions, and I attended way fewer concerts than I usually do, owing to a combination of overwork, failure to buy tickets, disinterest in most of the SFS season, and more jujitsu than I'd done in the last few years. Still, I have a few highlights and opinions on important news stories.

Local news story of the year: In an amazing coup, Esa-Pekka Salonen will be the next music director of San Francisco Symphony.

Second biggest local surprise of the year (after E-PS): Nic McGegan to retire after 30-odd years as music director of Philharmonia Baroque.

Local non-story of the year: Two and a half years after the announcement of Nicola Luisotti's departure from San Francisco Opera, there's no new music director in sight.

Favorite local cast changes: Irene Theorin stepping in for Evelyn Herlitzius in the SFO Ring, on almost no notice, and singing the heck out of Brünnhilde; Music Director Designate Salonen stepping into the concerts vacated by MGT, and being Salonen, MDD, improving the program.

Big news (mostly) elsewhere: Abusive behavior resulted in the firings, resignations, or suspensions of James Levine (Met), Daniele Gatti (Royal Concertgebouw....but the Rome Opera hired him not long after, astonishingly), Charles Dutoit (after more than 20 years of stories! was fired from or withdrew from engagements with eight different orchestras, as well as being fired ("stepped down") from the Royal Philharmonic, where he was music director, but....he now has a job in Russia), David Daniels (famed countertenor), William Preucil (teacher; longtime concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra), D. Kern Holman (musicologist), Massimo La Rosa (principal trombone of the Cleveland Orchestra), Stephen Shipps (chair of the string dept. at UMich), organist James David Christie, maybe principal oboist Lian Wang and associate principal trumpet player Matthew Muckey of the NY Philharmonic (the Phil was vague about why they were fired).

Two points about the above list:

1. That's a long list of prominent men.
2. There are more predators out there.

Better big news elsewhere, although....: Lots of conductor turnover, but somehow women still aren't being appointed to many highly visible positions, while some conductors have multiple prestigious appointments. Yes, I'm looking at you, Andris Nelsons, and you, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. There's so much talent out there that double appointments are not necessary or a good idea. I don't believe that even the youngish and energetic can adequately manage a big-budget orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Belated Museum Mondays

Photo of a dress on a mannequin. The mannequin is gold-colored. The dress is sleeveless and strapless, with a bodice of gold cloth flowers. The rest of the dress is floor-length and bell-shaped, very structured and made of gold-embroidered heavy cream fabric. It has a short train. In front, there's a cutout revealing the mannequin's legs and showing the inside of the skirt, which is lined with metallic gold fabric.

Guo Pei Exhibit
Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
September, 2022


Friday, March 03, 2023

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Sibelius in Vallejo

Here's a program of interest to Sibelius fans:

Music From The Land of Midnight Sun
Performed by the Vallejo Festival Orchestra, Soprano Katherine Whyte
Conducted by Maestro Thomas Conlin

Sibelius songs: “Spring is Flying,” “Was it a dream?,” “The Tryst,” “Autumn Night,” “Sigh, Rushes, Sigh,” and “Black Roses”, all for soprano and orchestra

Sibelius, Finlandia

Sibelius, Second Symphony

Saturday, March 11, 2023, 7:30 p.m.
The Empress Theatre, Vallejo Center for the Arts
330 Virginia St, Vallejo, California 94590
Tickets $29 - $97 — Call (707) 552-2400 or Visit

This is the enterprising conductor and orchestra that performed a Wagner program last year with soprano Othalie Graham. Looking forward to this program!

Stuff I Expect to See in SF

Photo take on a misty day of a bare tree against an abstract, silvery building

Walt Disney Concert Hall Garden
March, 2017
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

Between this year's and next year's goings-on at the LA Phil, I would bet a few bucks that we will be seeing works or programs like these in San Francisco sooner or later:

  • Felipe Lara, Double Concerto for Flute and Bass, because Susanna Mälkki is conducting it with SFS Collaborative Partners Claire Chase and esperanza spaulding.
  • Bryce Dessner, Double Concert for Two Pianos, because the composer is a Collaborative Partner
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen, Fanfare, which apparently features Collaborative Partner Pekka Kuuisisto
  • Nico Muhly, Shrink by another Collaborative Partner
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen, Karawane
  • Herbert Blomstedt conducts Schubert 6 and Beethoven 7
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Sibelius violin concerto (Lisa Batiashvili) and John Adams Naive and Sentimental Music....with the San Francisco Symphony, on a weird one-day runout to Los Angeles.
  • MTT conducts Tchaikowski 5 and Stravinsky Petroushka
Also guessing that there's a Ring revival coming at the Paris Opera because Gustavo Dudamel is conducting a well-cast semi-staged Das Rheingold in January, 2024. It's part of the orchestra's celebration of Frank Gehry, architect of Walt Disney Concert Hall, and he's the scenic designer.

And the SFS program feature about Gabriella Smith discloses that "The Symphony will present Breathing Forests [Smith's organ concerto] next season as part of the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music."