Articles by Steven Kruger

Music

Christian Reif leads the San Francisco Symphony in Strauss, Lutosławski, and Prokofiev, with Johannes Moser, cello.

I'm often struck, when I attend concerts, with how much it matters what we see happening onstage. Ears aren't everything. And sometimes they are not enough. This is doubly true if an audience is presented with the sort of modern music which trades in humor, sly remarks, and attitude, like the Lutosławski Cello Concerto, which received its San Francisco premiere this week nearly fifty years after it was composed. I'm happy to report the concerto was a triumph worth the wait, but its success with our audience was to a large degree determined by the mini-skit taking place onstage. Fortunately, Christian Reif and Johannes Moser are natural comedians, sufficiently so to dispel any notions that Germans are too uptight to be funny! And our close sight lines in Davies Hall, where it is easy to witness a performer's face, surely played a part in what almost amounted to a Saturday Night Live routine.
HHA

A Crop of Recordings XXIV: Rued Langgaard, Ruth Gipps, Hubert Parry, Vilhelm Stenhammar, and Witold Lutosławski

“Let me please introduce myself. I am a gentleman of wealth and taste. And I laid traps for troubadours….” So goes the Rolling Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil. Danish audiences never quite knew what to make of Rued Langgaard, at once romantic composer and obsessive throwback to apocalyptic Christianity. His Sixth Symphony, officially termed “The Heaven-Rending,” later came to be known as “The Antichrist.” The Danes, hearing the struggle in his music and perhaps a bit fundamentalist at the time, were never sure on which side Langgaard stood! Langgaard was passionately convinced Satan operated in modern life as power behind the scenes, devilishly pulling the strings of music, culture and government—and was ultimately responsible for the First World War. A special culprit and convert to this evil, in Langgaard’s eyes, was Carl Nielsen, the celebrated Danish composer of his day, whose modernism and humanism Langgaard alternately copied and excoriated. These views and other personal eccentricities, plus music which over time gradually became episodic and minimalistic, ensured Langgaard would remain unpopular in his home country.
Music

The Utah Symphony with Andrew Litton, conductor and Philippe Quint, violin in Bernstein, Corigliano, and Tchaikovsky

There's something a little otherworldly and disorienting about Salt Lake City, I'm tempted to say, especially if you aren't Mormon or familiar with the ways of the LDS Church. It's unusual to encounter a spotless downtown in any American city, of course, but you do wonder at times if Salt Lake is a Hollywood set designed to make one's own sense of human imperfection uncomfortable. Utah, in general, is almost too beautiful to be real—but the city is curiously empty—even in the Bermuda shorts weather of late October. Immensely wide, perfectly laid-out avenues are nearly people free. (The "don't walk" signs count down from 30). There are few homeless people visible, though sometimes they are the only citizens seemingly present, horizontal black marks visible on distant sidewalks.
HHA

A Crop of Recordings XXIII: Barenboim’s Brahms, Orozco-Estrada’s Strauss, Szell’s Walton and Stravinsky

If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.
Recordings

A Crop of Recordings XXII: Atterberg, Frommel, Walton, Elgar, and Roussel

Amusingly, this parses out to us a bit like Sir Edward Elgar gone Hollywood in the more outgoing moments. The music gleams from below as it strides forth on buttered strings and brass. The slow movement has a mesmeric, rocking, floaty quality which seems never to end and then does…”unfinished.” For a finale, Atterberg necessarily cannot evoke what Schubert did not write, so we encounter a rather haltingly fugal enterprise at first which gathers steam until we are going full tilt in the triumphant manner of Richard Strauss meets Copland. Yes, I know. What on earth does that sound like? Well, the final march is treated in the Shostakovich/Tubin/Copland manner, but the propulsive tune itself is essentially the nervous last movement fugal subject from Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica. You will have to listen to it to know! And the bumptious bells-and-whistles ending is worth the price of admission.
Music

Stéphane Denève Leads the San Francisco Symphony in Ibert, Saint-Saëns, Connesson, and Respighi, with Cellist Gautier Capuçon

There's much to be said for keeping personal politics away from concert music. Composers know this. Audiences prefer pictorialism and evocation to propaganda. That's why they are in the hall. Even Shostakovich, chronicler of Soviet political events, composed that way. But not all critics have the self-discipline to leave smug prejudice at home. The San Francisco Chronicle's local reviewer, who normally precedes New York Arts into print and shall be nameless here, launched an atavistic attack this week on Stéphane Denève's program choice of Respighi's Pines of Rome, calling the work "proto-fascist" and condemning it's march up the Appian Way as an appeal to nationalist sentiment. How ridiculous!
Recordings

A Crop of Recordings XXI: Brahms, Pierné, and Mahler

It’s good to have Brahms symphonies from the Boston Symphony once again. They sound right, with caveats. A full cycle hasn’t been a reliable tradition since Koussevitzky. Charles Munch recorded only three of the symphonies on LP in Boston. Erich Leinsdorf did produce as set, but Seiji Ozawa recorded merely the First in 1977 for DGG, and Bernard Haitink’s Philips CDs from the early nineties disappeared pretty much as soon as they were released. There were no BSO Brahms symphonies released by James Levine with the orchestra during his tenure. The Boston Symphony has always been a European-leaning ensemble, less “Hollywood” in sonority than the Philadelphia Orchestra and minimally “Broadway” in energy compared with the New York Philharmonic. Symphony Hall’s burnished acoustic, a byproduct of sonic archery from its cupids in alcoves, its high ceilings and a pliant wooden floor, is a conspirator in this and ideally suited for Brahms.
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