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American Music - San Francisco Symphony

It's not often that you get to see two conductors on stage at a symphony concert.

John Daly-Peoples
Sat, 01 Nov 2014

San Francisco Symphony
Davies Symphony Hall
September 26

It’s not often that you get to see two conductors on stage at a symphony concert but one of the recent San Francisco Symphony concerts featured the orchestra’s musical director, Michael Tilson Thomas, as well as Ragnar Bohlin, director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, who conducted Gyorgy Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna.

The second half of the programme consisted of three works which had all been used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey – Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube waltz, Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Ligeti work which Kubrick used in the film without the composers permission. “Lux Aeterna” was one of the four works composed by Ligeti which were used in the film.

The work is a truly modern choral work with eerie nightmarish sounds which provided a sense of the cosmos. Under conductor Ragnar Bohlin’s severe and precise direction, the words and sounds morphed with the various groups of the choir of the choir both balancing each other and ricocheting off each other. The first half of the programme featured two American composers whose works were connected as well. These were Charles Ives’s “hree Places in New England and Lucas Foss’ “… then the rocks on the mountain began to shout,” the title of which is a quote from Charles Ives.

Three Places in New England, written in 1914, combined portraits of particular places in New England along with references to historical events such as the first section which honours the Negro Battalion that served in the American Civil War.

The work looks back to the romanticism of the late 19th century, with references to songs and tunes of Civil War period as well as looking forward to musical forms that were developed by later composers such as Stravinsky. Michael Tilson Thomas gave an intelligent interpretative reading of the work, allowing the ideas and musical themes to coalesce.

The Foss work was a combination of something approaching the Latin Mass, with interrelated minimalist themes, creating sounds in which Bach met Glass. Mesmeric passages from meditative to the confrontational seemingly morphing from a requiem into children’s songs. Strauss said of Also Sprach Zarathustra that his intention was to “convey in music an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman.” Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra fulfilled that objective, capturing the mix of romanticism, thoughtfulness and spirituality needed to make the work come alive with a logical interpretation of the music.

The San Francisco Symphony has concerts three or four days a week, playing a vast range of works as well as visiting orchestras, conductors and soloists. Among the forthcoming concerts are; Brahms, Symphony No 2 and Bartok, Piano Concerto No 3 (November 29 & 30) Stravinsky, The Soldiers Tale & John Adams Grand Pianola Music (January 16–18) Andreas Schiff playing the last piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert (February 15) Thomas Ades, In Seven Days featuring Dawn Upshaw and the composer as conductor (March 5–7) Bruckner, Symphony No 8 (March 25–27) Mahler Symphony No 7 & Bernstein Symphony No 2 (May 7-10) John Cage, The Seasons & Renga (with video May 16).

John Daly-Peoples
Sat, 01 Nov 2014
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American Music - San Francisco Symphony
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