Friday, February 3, 2023

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I'm not sure how to describe the piece I heard last night. The program notes call it a song cycle, but that's hardly an adequate description. Though the composer, Gabriel Kahane, is the son of conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane, his creative base is closer to popular music than classical, though this is not his first classical ensemble piece.

The title, pretentiously eschewing capital letters, is emergency shelter intake form, which sounds like some kind of post-nuclear holocaust hellscape, but it's actually a form that homeless people have to fill out to get a bed for the night, and that's what the piece is all about. The bulk of the text is questions from such a form, morphing into evocations of the emotional impact. "Have you ever been evicted? How many times? If yes, how did it feel to hold the pink paper as you stood in the melting snow where men in coveralls tossed your belongings onto the pavement?" This material was sung by mezzo Alicia Hall Moran, in an incongruously plummy tone, in a close to monotonic semi-chant. There was also a "Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics," three non-classical singers including the composer, who interjected into this, and also sang (as soloists) two long inserted songs, more in pop song style and with actual melodic content: one sarcastically attacking NIMBY opposition to affordable housing developments and the other telling the story of the sub-prime mortgage loan crisis, lengthily and incomprehensibly, as like all such tellings it assumes you already know what they're talking about. (e.g. "Say you've got yourself a pile of different loans ..." but who is "you"? It never says.)

Leaving aside the rants, the material in bureaucratic format, with the cruel conclusion ("For enduring this and more" we're offering you a bed for tonight "in a concrete church basement ... You will need to be gone by 6:30 AM") is an effectively bleak evocation of life at that level. The tone is similar to that of John Scalzi's piece "Being Poor." Overall, yes, it was an effective message work.

The orchestral accompaniment is in a style hard to describe. Except for a few deliberately dissonant spots, it's thoroughly tonal, but it's not like any other music I'm familiar with. It might be said to be distantly descended from mid-20C American nationalist music.

It lasted close to an hour, which isn't quite enough for an evening symphony concert, so they paired it with Gershwin's Concerto in F. The orchestra, led by Edwin Outwater, did well enough, but it was pianist Conrad Tao who really had the Gershwin swing. The music brightened up considerably whenever he began playing.

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