This week and next, the SF Symphony hosts guest conductor Ton Koopman. Ton is short for Antonius, so there's some Dutch trivia for you. Koopman, who visits regularly, focuses almost exclusively on baroque music played in the style of the period. He is quoted as "draw[ing] the line at Mozart's death," as if no music worthy of his consideration had been written since 1791. But this is why you get one week of Thomas Ades conducting his piano concerto (more on this below), and the next the orchestra trying to emulate a baroque ensemble.
On the program: Haydn, Haydn, and Handel in week one of Koopman's residency, then Haydn, Haydn and Handel in week two. We look forward to hearing the music conducted by an expert of the period, especially since the soloists in Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante and Trumpet Concerto are all members of the orchestra who get to stand up in front and show off their chops. Cellist Peter Wyrick did this during Koopman's visit last year. We caught up with SF Symphony principal bassoonist Stephen Paulson, a member of the orchestra for 38 years, who wears four different hats this week: he'll be one of the soloists in the Sinfonia Concertante; on Sunday, he will conduct the Symphony Parnassus, where he is music director, in Shostakovich's fiendish Cello Concerto and Beethoven Fourth Symphony; on Saturday, he is the composer of the bassoon concerto (1968) performed by maestro Nicole Paiement, with on the bassoon, Justin Cummings, who belongs to Paulson's teaching studio at the SF Conservatory. There you have it: performer, conductor, composer, teacher, all in one week-end.
Let's start with the Symphony, what is your role in the Sinfonia Concertante and how you adapt to Ton Koopman's early music style?
Stephen: It is a piece for four soloists and orchestra. The violinist and cellist have the most important parts. It's a combination of violin and cello concerto. The two winds have mostly a back-up role but we're still soloists.
Ton Koopman does wonderful performances, the way he shapes music. We are quite used to when the early music specialists come in. There are several of them we see regularly, we pretty much know what to expect, changing our style from the typical Romantic style that we normally play to something that is a fairly good impersonation of early music style. Within that context, each one of these specialists has different views. Each one is very personal in the way they interpret music, and most of them are quite opinionated, they want a phrase like this, not like that. We expected that when we got together with the quartet to rehearse. Sure enough, he wanted articulation to be different, the loud and soft part to be different from what we expected, but we made the adjustments pretty quickly and we're going to have some fun with it.
He seems to have pretty strong ideas on early music style, does he mind that you play with a synthetic reed?
Stephen: I don't think he even noticed. Cane reed and synthetic are pretty much the same. A bassoonist could notice a slight timber change from one to the other but most other people won't notice a change. It's just the response and behavior. Sometimes I really prefer the synthetic reed. I played them for six months a couple years ago, switched back to cane reed, and I've been back on the synthetic ones for about a month. It has to do with whatever a player can to do to get past some of the hurdles of the instrument to get into a zone where you just make music. Whatever it is, I don't care, if I find something that allows me to be freer, so I can express myself in music. With synthetic, there is a little bit of fooling around with them, but principally we don't scrape on them. To get a cane reed tuned to the response you want, that takes scraping with the knife, and you have to do that everyday, they change every day, you have to slightly adjust the scrape day to day. With synthetic, one, once it's set, you don't have to do that.
It seems there is not too many opportunities for bassoon to be a soloist
Stephen: The most famous piece is the Mozart bassoon concerto. I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity again to play that again with the Symphony next year. I've been with the Symphony a long time and this is my third Haydn concertante and next February, it will be my fourth performance of the Mozart bassoon concerto with the Symphony.
Weber wrote two wonderful pieces for bassoon and orchestra, there is a concerto and the andante and Hungarian rondo, which is great fun, I just did that with an orchestra in the peninsula. In the classical era, Mozart and Weber are the most famous ones. As you get closer to the 20th century, there are many concertos by composers from all over the world. Actually, one of them was written by me and it will be performed this week-end! My bassoon concerto that I composed many years ago when I was a senior in college, is a very ambitious modernistic piece but it also has this romantic color. It will be performed by my student Justin Cummings with the Conservatory New Music Ensemble conducted by Nicole Paiement on Saturday night. He is the winner of the concerto competition for the New Music Ensemble. And I'm going to have to miss it because I'll be playing the Sinfonia Concertante. Steve Dibner, my wonderful colleague at the Symphony, performed it while I conducted the Symphony Parnassus a couple years back. So this will be the first performance of that piece that I won't be doing something, I won't even be in the audience. I guess I'll hear a recording. I heard the rehearsals. It's a busy week-end for me, it's a perfect storm. I have the Haydn concerts on, and Justin is doing my concerto on Saturday, and on Sunday I conduct the Symphony Parnassus.
What exactly is the Symphony Parnassus?
Stephen: It's been a great fun, I've been doing this for sixteen years. It's an all volunteer orchestra except for a paid concertmaster. It's full of talented players who areGoogle executives and doctors and research scientists and teachers. It was once affiliated with UCSF and what remains is the name, Parnassus is of course the name of the street that goes through the campus, and a really good pipeline of players from students and faculty, especially string players. A lot of young medical students have really good string playing background, and for some reason they chose medicine over music playing as a career path. There are quite a few of these people with us, as well as members who were in the orchestra before I joined, who were faculty and research scientists. We do he most ambitious repertoire. We played the Rite of Spring twice, and quite well. We do all the Mahler Symphonies. The more challenging the repertoire, the more they like it. It's not a professional orchestra, you can tell when you listen to it, but they're ambitious and will tackle all kind of music.
Thomas Ades with the SF Symphony: At the opposite end of a Ton Koopman who focuses on pre-Mozartian stuff exclusively, the visit of Thomas Ades last week targeted only post 20th century stuff, including Ades' own massive piano concerto, In Seven Days, for a program themed around the myths of genesis. Thomas Ades has been featured many times at Davies Symphony hall - and all around the world, he's one of the most creative composers around nowadays. The performance of excerpt of his opera The Tempest was a highlight of last season, and his Polaris in 2011 combined his music with videos by his then-partner Tal Rosner. They teamed up again for In Seven Days, with video projections on a large screen above the stage.
We are not a good audience for music enhanced with video: we enjoy watching the musicians, and getting absorbed in the music, and we'd rather wonder why is it that violinists Mark Volkert and Sasha Barantschik in the first row seesaw out of phase than watching white dots on the screen. And they are out of sync because Ades came up with an intricate score that splits the violins and most strings for long stretches to create layers of sounds in a tightly weaved fabric symbolizing chaos. And we don't need visual support to remember that the creation started with fiat lux, which means: let there be spotlights.
Kirill Gerstein soloed at the keys, for an incredibly dense score that uses all the keys almost evenly rather than a spectrum distributed around the middle C. Ades likes his intervals jagged and his melodic motives short and abrupt, yet out of seemingly disparate building blocks emerged a structure that you could feel evolving.
The rest of the program: Ives' Unanswered Question, featuring Mark Inouye by himself on the front of the stage, a handful of flutes in the rear right corner, and a gaggle of strings outside. The strings inhabit their own independent world of peace and serene quiescence, like trees by a pond, while the trumpet asks the same question. By the rising interrogative phrasing of the melody, you hear clearly it's asked, and you can imagine the words to it. For us: "Where are you-ou-ou?" The flutes answer, in increasing agitation, be it anxiety or laughter, you decide. The piece is short, yet opens up a whole narrative world into its simple structure.
Ades conducted two pieces, French composer and long-time Oakland teacher Darius Milhaud's La Création du Monde, which tells said creation in a jazzy vernacular that Ades could not make swing, even in its love-laced latin incarnations. And in Sibelius' Luonnotar, a song based upon another creation myth, with Dawn Upshaw, the story line stayed rather flat and even. No big bang there. At least, in the Finnish composer's piece we found the answer of who in the audience let out a Nokia (of Finland) ring tone. Obviously some Finns came to hear their own.