The Agonies of the San Francisco Symphony: a Tour Program that Never Got to Carnegie Hall
The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor
Yuja Wang, piano
Samuel Carl Adams – Drift and Providence (2012)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Opus 58 (1806)
Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68 (1876)
It has been a sad and shocking time—these last few weeks at the San Francisco Symphony. The sun always seems to shine on this enthusiastic and talented orchestra. I usually sit in the terraces, just above the players, where the interplay of glances among musicians serves without fail to gladden the heart. But I was happy not to be there on February 23rd and witness the death in performance of William Bennett, the orchestra’s much loved Principal Oboe.
Bennett was the soloist that evening in the beautiful late Concertino by Strauss. Like Metamorphosen, it is an elegiac work, half nostalgia, half hope, a postwar witness to the destruction of so much Strauss had held dear. I suppose, if one dies old, it is a fine and fitting way to make for the exit. But it must surely have been far too much an intimation of mortality to see William Bennett, seemingly athletic, youthful and handsome at 56, begin to sway as he played, hand off his oboe to someone nearby like a baton in a relay race, and drop unconscious to the floor, never to know life or music again.
A week after this tragedy I found myself at the Symphony in person, sampling one of the tour programs intended for Carnegie Hall at the end of the month. Last time, the orchestra took a series of “maverick” works to the East Coast, including the wonderful fist-banging piano concerto Henry Cowell wrote during the 1920s. On this occasion, the orchestra hoped to impress in a more mainstream way. Along with the Ninth Symphony of Mahler, for which the orchestra has justly become famous, Michael Tilson Thomas this time revived his performance of the Brahms First Symphony from last season. With Yuja Wang at the keyboard for the Beethoven Fourth Concerto and a new piece by Samuel Carl Adams, Drift and Providence, the orchestra was all set for its tour. But as listeners are now ruefully aware, the San Francisco Symphony went out on strike last week over issues of salary and respect, about which more in a moment. And there is to be no tour.
Here is what would have been—should have been. But I am not certain that the program I heard could in any case have been as impressive as hoped. Carl Samuel Adams, who was personally on-hand to receive-a-hand, is the son of John Adams. Like his father, he writes accessible music. But judging from this composition, he does not yet have a profile that jumps out at you with the “aha!” of a new synthesis. That may only partially be his fault. He may be attempting the near-impossible.
There is a law of diminishing returns for composers these days, I’ve concluded. Within the parameters of 103 players sitting on stage, the time constraints of a concert, and the known possibilities of standard instruments, there is not the room for originality there once was. In all likelihood, any melody devised today will already have existed somewhere else. Any texture will have been tried before. The juxtaposition of one instrument with another will produce sonorities already well-known—even if one is “playing” in a new manner. We have had a hundred years of special attempts to get unusual sounds—banging on plucked instruments, blowing on stringed ones, stamping our feet, playing brass instruments backwards, re-tuning pianos with bolts and screws to sound like gongs, and so forth. The sad truth is that little of it sounds really different. Used this way, symphony orchestras tend to produce a generic metallic effect, despite any subtleties of orchestration. The little bits of originality which perhaps are achieved within the orchestra tend to get lost crossing the footlights. What the audience hears is “another percussive modern piece”.
So it was with Drift and Providence. The music opens cleverly with the sound of a match being struck, and the emotional arch of the work has a nice progression to it. But after this, it really could have been named anything Adams chose to call it. Listen to Debussy’s “La Mer” and you hear the cold North-Atlantic sea. Listen to Drift and Providence and you hear generic “urban” music mixed in with the sort of introspection Barber brings to quieter moments in his Scene From Shelley. But, unfortunately, none of it is memorable. It seemed to this listener no more about San Francisco than about anything at all. The music is kaleidoscopic and not unpleasant to listen to, but the textures have no light and shade, and too many things are going on at once. After a while, it sounds like the passing of traffic….
Beethoven to the rescue, then? Or maybe not. Yuja Wang, resplendent in cobalt blue, joined the orchestra next in the Beethoven Fourth Concerto. She seemed a bit more cautious in the presence of Beethoven than her usual self, refined but not particularly original. The first movement cadenza was certainly subtle and worth hearing, but the orchestra was no help. With only four basses playing, the sonority was a touch smaller than I would have wanted, but the real problem was the inability of Tilson Thomas to evoke quiet playing. He simply could not match Wang’s subtlety. In the slow movement, particularly, the loud and gruff statements of the orchestra got in the way of anything dreamlike and svelte in this most fluid of Beethoven concerti…
And what would the New York critics have made of MTT’s Brahms first? “Not bad”, they’d have probably written. Damnation with faint praise, though. The New York critics always pull punches that way with out-of-town orchestras, trying not to damage a home reputation. As an interpretation, Tilson Thomas takes his view of this symphony from early Bernstein. The performance I heard reminded me of Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic CBS recording. To Thomas’ credit, the first movement, in particular, was far from the flaccid and lumbering thing so many conductors have made of it in recent years. But as so often with him, it lacked the sheer killer-power that would make it memorable. It is possible for a European orchestra to brood effectively and dreamily over this piece. And Bernstein came to conduct it quite differently during his Vienna years. But our SF brasses and winds are more extroverted than that. In the end, a bit more white heat would have been the order of the day. And, as usual, missing was truly quiet playing. The slow movement’s last chord featured a percussive and loud brass entry. Even Carnegie Hall’s acoustic could not have imparted subtlety to that. Perhaps I become a broken record in saying so, but Michael Tilson Thomas does not have the intuitive understanding of German music that Bernstein had. I begin increasingly to think that his general tendency to stay away from it is the right one…..
So, voila the tour program that wasn’t…..A week ago the orchestra went out on strike for the first time in fifteen years. And it may well turn out to be unpleasant for everyone. As Henry Kissinger once said of department chairmanships at Harvard, the viciousness he had witnessed there was far worse than anything he ever encountered In Washington—Precisely because so little was at stake!
The San Francisco Symphony is a beautifully endowed and wonderfully well-paid orchestra—but these facts don’t account for the important milestones of pride. Tangibly, not that much is at issue this time. In the last strike, the players were being subjected to “mission creep” and over-scheduled to the point of developing repetitive motion injuries. Now, one mostly imagines the players’ thinking “If we’re so damned wonderful as they say, why can’t they come up with the extra couple of thousand dollars a year to give us par with the La Philharmonic down in LaLa Land? What are we, chopped meat?”
There appears, of course, to be a recurring deficit in the management of the orchestra, but with full audiences at concerts, successful CDs and player-prestige never higher, one imagines the musicians do not feel at fault for this. Also, winding backwards from this strike, we come upon the orchestra’s much admired principal timpanist, David Herbert, who found the backstage facilities unworkable some time ago. He had to rent a personal space outside the building and extra timpani to practice, despite his many appeals for a solution. It is too late. Herbert has just let himself be lured away to the Chicago Symphony. The scuttlebutt about this within the orchestra has surely not helped. To any, artist treatment matters—often more than money. Music is such an intangible thing, after all. It disappears forever after two seconds. So how you feel matters—and how your team and its leaders feel about you…
Davies Hall is a good one. But it is not perfect. I am not privy to the backstage life of the hall and the nature of its inconveniences. But I do have the sense that there are not enough practice facilities on site. A few years ago, during a performance of the Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony, whose finale is whisper-quiet from beginning to end, I was startled to hear the sounds of trombones in the basement roaring like lions deep in the recesses of the Colosseum.
As readers may know, the Minnesota Orchestra is also in the midst of a strike, a long one. The players feel money has been wasted on improving facilities in the hall which do not affect them, and that management is now poor-mouthing. The accountants say otherwise. They may even be right. But I would only caution the powers that be at the SFS that an accountant’s approach usually doesn’t work well in music. Budgets can be trimmed by shaving a bit of this here or there, as we all know. Budgets can even be put on a “glide path” to solvency by reducing this and rejiggering that….even Congress occasionally manages to do this!
But no symphony musician can respond in kind. Beethoven does not get better if you shave five percent off the music and just play most of it. Nor do you get efficiency-raises for playing his music faster. A musician will of course admire and thrive under an efficient management. And I suspect the management here is really pretty good. But you simply cannot make that the be-all and end-all without so offending the point of the enterprise that it shuts down on you. That has clearly happened here. Bad feeling in a feeling medium is bad psychology…
“I do not mean necessarily to argue that taking offense is the right course of action. The converse is also true. Paralysis like this will cost everyone more than they are likely to gain. I simply suggest this is how these things can happen. A lot depends on the intransigence or ideology of negotiators on both sides, and word has it that the union negotiator in this instance has been advocating brinksmanship—did not think management would willingly undergo the strike. That sort of unreasonable pressure causes unnecessary insult to management, as well. Not only musicians have pride! Unfortunately, the San Francisco Symphony strike seems at this point likely to throw a rather large baby out with the bath water. An adversarial feast of unreason, it seems….”
I’ll close and illustrate this point with a personal anecdote. Some decades ago the Tulsa Philharmonic selected a new Music Director from the roster of conductors I supervised at Shaw concerts. I flew down to Tulsa to negotiate the contract. It became clear that our salary proposals for the conductor would be just fine—if he had been working in an office. The Board Chairman was new, very rough around the edges, like many new money types who want to polish their social diamonds at a cultural institution. But he knew nothing of music. It became evident that he resented the idea of a conductor’s being paid a full salary for a twenty hour week. No entreaty or explanation on my part about the amount of score-studying required seemed to reach him.
“But why can’t he just open the score and read it at the rehearsals?”, he’d say.
I was unbending.
“All people care about anyway is Van Cliburn. Do we really have to have a full symphony orchestra for that?”
“Can’t we just have an accompaniment orchestra?!”
I left town on the next plane!
I felt like Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock—a hired gun with only one arm. The contract was finalized another time, but the conductor wasn’t happy there and didn’t stay long. In truth, the players had been selected with similar lack of sensitivity and didn’t play well.
“It would have killed my soul ” to keep conducting there, the conductor later confided to me.
I have no special advice for the San Francisco Symphony under the circumstances. I hope the strike is quickly settled and everyone can get on with their weekly magic. I leave behind just the observation that, for better or worse, it is all more about respect than money.
So, in the vernacular of the street, Diss not!