Thursday, October 1, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Tchaikovsky's Pathétique is the work that really tests any theories of how, or if, music expresses the inner state of its composer's emotions. With its searing "crawling out of the grave" bassoon opening and dour, anxious first movement, and its soul-crushingly depressive slow finale, it's about the most suicidal-sounding work in the classical repertoire - only a couple pieces by Shostakovich really match it - and the fact that the composer died unexpectedly a week after conducting the premiere has added fuel to rumors that he did commit suicide.

Claims that the work isn't really that depressing don't hold up. The two middle movements are much cheerier, and the third, a jolly march, ends with such a bang that it usually receives applause even from audiences not otherwise minded to clap between movements. (They did so last night: MTT, who was conducting, just ignored it.) Yet Tchaikovsky had written triumphal conclusions before, but they were always at the end of the symphony: this one isn't the last word, that Adagio finale is. In context, the middle movements act as a kind of intermezzo that's in denial of the suffering around it.

Yet Tchaikovsky was really happy, even cheerful, about his composition, and the word "pathétique" (or its Russian equivalent) doesn't mean "pathetic" as it would in English, but more "passionate" and "emotional". And the theories that he did commit suicide have turned out to be so much nonsense. If he hadn't died, how would we read this work? (How do we read Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet, possibly meant as a note for a suicide that wasn't carried out?) The premiere audience was puzzled, as well they should have been by such an oddly-shaped symphony unfamiliar to them, but that may have been also because Tchaikovsky wasn't a very good conductor. It was only after he died that it all fell into place and a narrative was born.

It's a tough question, and I mused over it while listening to this fine performance. Greatest plaudits to Carey Bell for dying clarinet falls so quietly and distantly played that it sounded as if he were offstage.

Also on the program, the emotional antithesis to the Pathétique, the serenely calm and warm-hearted Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber's setting of James Agee's prose poem remembering the happy times of his childhood before tragedy struck his family. Susanna Phillips sang, with supreme technique but not enough volume.

And a recent work by Ted Hearne, a young composer (now 33) with a pop background who confesses himself intimidated and alienated by the symphony orchestra, which is why he titled his work Dispatches as if he were a foreign correspondent here. It begins in quiet consonance interrupted by bursts of chaotic dissonance which gradually take over. There are some imaginative episodes along the way, but the work gave me no sense of structure, and generally sounded like the improvisations of a bright 9-year-old. I wish that younger composers could learn from Barber and Tchaikovsky that it's possible to write strong emotions into your music without devolving into noise.

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