This week's lineup of classical music events for you to consider: I was sad to miss Sasha Cooke with the Berkeley Symphony last week in a premiere by Jake Heggie. I liked her a lot in SF Opera's Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and she's in recital with SF Performances on Friday. The New Century Chamber Orchestra is led this week not by NSS but by a musical legend: Glenn Dicterow who for 35 years sat in the first chair of the NY Phil. He retired from that and rather than moving to Florida, is moonlighting with the conductor-less chamber orchestra in a program of Brahms, Mozart, Grieg and Holst. The SF Symphony is not conductor-less at all, and the conductor this week is actually the composer: Thomas Adès, holds the baton for his piano concerto In Seven Days with videos by Tal Rosner and Kirill Gerstein at the keys.
As for previous events, Philip Glass was in town on Monday, the SF Opera announced its 2013-14 financial results, the SF Symphony its 2015-16 season, Hélène Grimaud stopped by with the Rotterdam Philharmonic orchestra, and Anne-Sophie Mutter revisited Brahms violin concerto.
20 Etudes by Philip Glass: Philip Glass gets my goat. He's obviously a composer of genius and often finds rare delicacy in the surprisingly intricate wonders of simple sounds. But he also gets complacent and produces reams of music derivative of a formula he honed a while back. I get why he was performing a handful of his 20 Etudes for solo piano yesterday evening, hosted by SF Performances: he is the big draw, a rock star, and a colorful, youngish, sold out audience indeed was waiting for him at Davies Symphony Hall. The only downside: He is not a good pianist. One of his main tool as a composer is an oscillation between two nodes, and the key (ha!) to playing this oscillation is evenness in volume and in rhythm. Glass, who is 78 years old, does not achieve this, his playing is unsteady and haphazard. When the music is sparse and bare, as in Glass' many Satie-inspired moments, there is nowhere for him to hide. Maybe the point he wanted to make was that even lesser musicians can play his Etudes, and by all means, amateur pianists, buy the just-released score!
The rest of the Etudes were played by Timo Andres and Maki Namekawa, with two contrasting styles. Andres sticks to the monotonous mechanical drive of Glass' style, while Namekawa finds some emotion in these rather dry studies, and manages to impart some swing to the repetitive rhythm. Glass basically writes almost everything in 8th notes, either oscillating or arpeggiated, with some notes accented to add a melodic outline (with the accents on ever shifting beats) on top of slowly evolving basic harmonies. Think of Bach's Prelude in C Minor from the Well Tempered Keyboard mixed with gamelan, but simpler. He sometimes attempt more sophisticated figures, borrowing from Tchaikovsky's piano concerto chords (in the 15th) or from Schubert's Impromptu (in the 2nd) or just some pop song theme (the 8th), but always building on top of a chaconne structure, where the bass motif repeats itself over and over with some added variations on top.
However, Glass seems stuck in a few harmonic sequences and the Etudes start blending together into an aimless mess after a while. Maybe that's the point, a macro-repetitiveness to layer the micro-repetitiveness within each Etude. In his pieces of wider scale (say, Einstein on the Beach), we are immersed in the repetitive language, there is an entrancing factor to it after a while, the music forces you to give in. The Etudes are too short to reach this stage, and even strung together, they left us wanting for more inventiveness within each, or a more coherent arch in between (they were composed in independent batches over 20 years). The redeeming factor: Maki's impassionated performance. She modulated the drab score as if her life depended on it, and her committed interpretation awed us.
SF Opera audited results: SF Opera audited results came up on Tuesday: a tiny deficit of $348,244 on an operating budget of $74,119,493 for the 2013-14 season. Revenues from the roughly 300,000 people who attended an event increased to above $22 million; it's nice to see it a year-on-year increase of about 10%, because growth! Total revenues reached $37 mil. Do pause a second to reflect that the people in the seats are paying for less than a third of the product on the stage, or that revenues only cover half the budget. We have been getting coupons for free meals from Sprigg or Munchery lately, and $5 Uber-pool rides, and we do appreciate people with deep pockets paying for us to enjoy nice things (also known as investors growing a business). Still we have this nagging feeling it's not sustainable; for the opera, it's the only way to operate though, it's built in the business plan. The audited results do not mention this number, but we seem to recall they sell over 80% of their seats, there's no much room to grow on that account. In any case, kudos to David Gockley and his team for almost balancing the budget while presenting some varied and interesting stuff including the world premiere of Dolores Claiborne or that creative staging of The Flying Dutchman or the rare and intriguing Mefistofele. And now that you know that you are getting a significant discount off the ticket price, that you're getting more value than what you're paying for, don't you want to check it out?
SF Symphony 2015-16 season: The SF Symphony announced its 2015-16 season, and we are, once more, spoiled. MTT has been curating these for 20 years by now, so we know exactly what to expect. He has refined the programing to an artful blend of the familiar and the innovative, the risky and the comforting, the old and the new. Mason Bates has become the it composer of the moment: he's local, he's using computers, computers!, on stage, and he can write some massive orchestral scores, so he'll be premiering Auditorium, a mash of recorded Baroque music samples jousting with a live orchestra; the orchestra will release a recording of three of his pieces The B-Sides (SFS commission), Liquid Interface, and Alternative Energy. John Adams has been the it composer of the era for a little while, and gets his own CD release party with Absolute Jest (SFS co-commission) and Grand Pianola Music. Other modern works presented next season include the US premiere of Jörg Widmann’s first piano concerto Trauermarsch, and the West Coast premiere of New Voices composer Ted Hearne’s Dispatches.
Then for the older stuff, we'll go through a cycle of Schumann's symphonies to be released as recording at a later date. Schumann symphonies were the answer to a question we once asked Berkeley Symphony director Rene Mandel: "Can you name a composer that's box office death?" MTT has his work cut out for him.
The list of soloists is stellar as always, with Yuja Wang pretty much coming back every other week. We kid, but she's such a frequent visitor, she should take residency here. Other notables: Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Jeremy Denk, András Schiff, Leif Ove Andsnes, Hilary Hahn, Christine Brewer and the New-York Philharmonic orchestra. The orchestra will go on tour in Europe, checking out the brand new auditorium of Jean Nouvel for the Philharmonie de Paris, and in the US.
Where the SF Symphony could do better? Its podium gender diversity. It looks like a Kleiner-Perkins board room there. Aside from Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki who comes for a 2 weeks residency and will feature her homeland's Sibelius for his 150 anniversary, we could not find a single female conductor. Come on, that's pretty dreadful.
Anne-Sophie Mutter in Brahms: John Luther Adams (not to be confused with the other John Adams in the item above) adheres, like Philip Glass, to minimalism, and was being performed by musicians of the SF Symphony last week. We wanted to like The Light that Fills the World: we had listened to a recording of it, and enjoyed its mellow atmospherics, its slow contemplative pace, the spacious soundscape, the immersive character. A friend to whom we mentioned the piece texted back that the music triggered the following introspection: "where did I stash my pot?" It is that eerie. By all accounts, the performance of John Luther Adams' Inuksuit, an outdoor piece for percussions, at the Ojai North festival in Berkeley a couple years back, was an event not to miss, and we did just that.
The piece opens with double basses gurgling on a continuous note, like the birth of the earth in Rheingold, except it just stays there, adding here and there some more craggy textures from a portative organ or a contrabassoon. It sounds like a Rite of Spring that stays frozen, stuck on its first chord and repeating again and again. The performance by seven SF Symphony musicians unfortunately did not capture the textures of the recording, and it sounded just plain repetitive rather than entrancing. It felt like going in circle, with the same sequence of instruments getting exactly the same result, rather than adding layers to the sonic fabric: an anchoring from the bass, some halted violin notes and a sequence of notes from the marimba and vibraphone going up the scale, then back to the starting point, with the same dynamics (or lack thereof). It would have been easier to appreciate with some video projections or even in the dark.
Anne-Sophie Mutter can perform the Brahms' violin concerto in her sleep. She has recorded it with the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert Von Karajan in 1982, then again with the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur in the 90s. She's been perfecting it for over thirty years, she just knows every nook and cranny, and she obviously does not get tired of it: her performance was as impressive as any we've heard, with a rich tone and a phenomenal virtuosity. Even in the most tumultuous moments, with fingers going up and down the neck of the violin at lightning speed, she manages to lay down the beat clearly and to produce a rich full sound. She also knows all the little tricks to get heard over the orchestra, like ever so slightly stealing the downbeat of the last measure of the first movement so that her low note does not disappear in the tutti. The orchestra was more than willing to support her, but came a bit too forcefully in the Adagio. There, Mingjia Liu's solo oboe overture was beautiful, but Anne-Sophie just came in afterwards so softly and delicately, it made the orchestra sound a bit too crude. They just didn't have thirty years of polish.
The concert concluded with Schuman's first Symphony, which MTT conducted with brash energy and not too much subtlety. Flutist Tim Day shone throughout.
Rotterdam Philaharmonic: The Rotterdam Philharmonic music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, paced his conducting well in a program of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, Ravel's piano concerto in G and Prokofiev's 5th Symphony. Maybe he got looser as the night went along, or maybe the childish themes of the Mother Goose Suite do not call for conducting exuberance, but he started the evening straight, leading his band with an efficient economy of gesture and no frills. By the end of Prokofiev's Symphony, he busted out some moves to extoll his musicians. Part of it is trying to get the most out of the orchestra, but part of it is good showmanship. Also, forgive us for veering in the futile here, but they say the stage makes everyone look taller. Not Nezet-Seguin.
The orchestra opened with Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye, as series of children fairy tale first written for piano four hands then orchestrated later. It's always a good bet for a visiting orchestra to play some Ravel, as he finds lovely orchestral colors and uses the full palettes of instruments in quirky and illuminating ways. A bunch of players get to show off their chops, the oboe in the Pavane of Sleeping Beauty, the contra-bassoon in the Beauty and the Beast, the cellos or xylophone in the Enchanted Garden, or the timpani adding rich muted depth to the Empress of the Pagodas. The concert master heckled the orchestra with mocking interjections in Tom Thumb: these were the birds eating the crumbs, for once not scored for flute. The ensemble shone as well, as in the shimmery textures and blended colors throughout.
Then came on stage Hélène Grimaud for Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. She is a forceful pianist, and she was particularly at home in the percussive outer movements of the concerto. One could wish to underline some countermelodies with a bit more subtlety in the big arpeggio runs and chord sequences, and she was so facile in the fiendishly virtuoso bits that it's a musicianship decision on her part, not a limitation of her skills. The last time we heard her, we were surprised at how vigorously she would sound a bass line with her left hand, and it seems she likes her background more in the foreground than others. It makes it a bit harder on the listener to discriminate the different voices, but that's her artistic tack. And for as jaunty and fun and free of emotional angst a piece as Ravel's, it worked perfectly. We admired the surprising agility of the trombone in the opening movement, or the delicate harp solo.
As for the Prokofiev Symphony, Néset-Séguin opted for a bombastic approach, showing off a roiling energy throughout, but in particular through the second movement Allegro Marcato, an hectic march with the ghosts of Gershwin (for the bluesy orchestral colors) and Ravel (for the Bolero-like rhythmic ineluctability) hovering around. The orchestra and the conductor had a symbiotic relationship all the way to the exuberant finish.
Encores from the soloist leave the musicians of the orchestra stuck on stage, with great seats, true, but they are passive participants in the celebration; this time, Néset-Séguin joined Hélène in duet, a nice touch to involve the orchestra in the encores.