Though Michael Tilson Thomas doesn't step away from our podium officially until the summer of 2020, his recently announced departure ensures every guest conducting week at the San Francisco Symphony between now and then amounts to a job interview for the Music Directorship. English conductor Edward Gardner, current Music Director of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway and a frequent recording artist for Chandos with British orchestras, surely had this possibility in mind for his impressive debut program here last week: a shrewdly chosen British signature piece; a bow to MTT's New York Broadway roots with Gershwin, and Rachmaninoff's final blockbuster, written in America. He brought the house down.
The late Donizetti masterpiece, L'assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) is a rarity indeed, even in Europe. Four years after the first performance, l’assedio was not performed again until 1990. One hundred and eighty-one years after its premiere in 1836, this Glimmerglass production marked the American premiere. During its composition, Donizetti had struggled with it and bent operatic conventions to seek performances in Paris. Ultimately, the opera was a tactical failure and Donizetti wound up with two versions, with an unequal number of acts. In preparation for this production, Francesca Zambello and Joseph Colaneri worked on a new performing edition that tightened loose ends and yielded a satisfactory, if not compelling, conclusion. Some ballet music was lost in the cuts, but dance (to curry favor with French opera goers) would be an awkward addition to the nobility and gravity of the plot. In the Zambello/Colaneri conclusion, the final exculpation of six sacrificial hostages was emotionally and musically heartrending.
It could have been created during the Golden Age of Broadway, so seamlessly integrated is the extraordinary, ballet-driven musical An American in Paris. The George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin score would have been enough by itself. Add to that the dancing, singing, acting, lighting, costumes and scenery (which seems to dance as well) all built on the vision of the newest brilliant choreographer-director, and the effect is overwhelmingly thrilling. Welcome to the age of Christopher Wheeldon on Broadway.
If you feel pursued by good luck, do we call it paranoia? This is the question I must answer lately, since it seems the London Symphony has chased me down in San Francisco—to my great delight! Just a month ago, I had the good fortune of hearing Sir Mark Elder lead the orchestra in a solid Pathétique at the Barbican. By the time my visit was over, I had experienced the Berlin Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, the Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic, as well. What puzzled throughout all this listening was the difficulty of telling the orchestras apart in London's Barbican and Festival Hall, clinical modern venues with limited reverberation and bass.
Last Friday evening dusked warm and sensuous—a rarity in this city. And at the San Francisco Symphony: one of those electric occasions to match, where everything comes together with inspiration, and the audience goes away feeling alive and happy. I don't think I have ever seen Michael Tilson Thomas so rested and intuitively joyous at the podium—American music is his specialty—and nobody since Bernstein does it so well. Thomas has a reputation for programming what amounts to narrated musical lesson-plans. Let him grab a microphone, and the dowagers in the audience get nervous.
A portion of the rich but sometimes neglected trove of American symphonies was given a welcome exposure during the valuable Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in early May, thanks to the ongoing commitment to this repertory of music directors David Alan Miller and Leonard Slatkin. The beneficiary composers, Morton Gould and Charles Ives, both stand apart from the mid-century symphonic mainstream, also neglected, of Piston, Sessions, Schuman, Harris, Diamond, et al. It was a fascinating juxtaposition, particularly since Gould’s symphony has been largely absent since its premier in 1947, and most of Ives’s works had to wait lengthy intervals before receiving their first performances.
It's silly season again at the San Francisco Symphony! A quick report from the front. And a debut teaser for later. Do we have a new Horowitz? In perfect weather, with no need for a sylvan retreat, we San Franciscans simply shine a colored spotlight on the Davies Hall organ pipes in July, and Presto, music becomes festive! "My Classic Americana" is one of several programs containing well-known works Michael Francis has been leading this summer, with super zest and limited rehearsal. At times he's got us clapping along in such good spirits, we might as well be at the Albert Hall Proms. The young Englishman has now conducted several summer seasons in San Francisco and is a great hit with our audience, bringing just the right touch of knowing wit, uncomplicated musicality, good spirits and schoolboy snark to the proceedings.