Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Fall preview: San Francisco Symphony


Conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein in New York City, 1955. Photo: Library of Congress
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San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas has kept life exciting at the corner of Grove and Van Ness for over two decades, and plans for the 2017-18 season maintain his reputation for imaginative programming and rousing performances.

Single tickets have been on sale since July, and "compose your own [subscription] series" packages are still available. From the opening gala Thurs., Sept. 14, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, to the season finale in late June (Mahler's glorious Third Symphony, with favorite mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke), Davies Symphony Hall will be enlivened by guest soloists and conductors, music by living composers, many SFS first-time performances and an ambitious semi-staged version of Mussorgsky's epic opera "Boris Godunov."

A preview of offerings through the winter holidays is in order, but don't lose sight of next year, especially since one of the biggest events, a series of concerts celebrating the birth centennial of MTT's mentor Leonard Bernstein, continues into February. More than almost any other conductor, MTT has upheld the efforts of his fabulous teacher by sharing the joy of music. Lenny taught a generation that "classical" is a lively category, and hearing it performed live is the best way to appreciate it.

He said, "I can't live one day without hearing music." He also boasted, "To be a success as a Broadway composer, you must be Jewish or gay. I'm both." The beloved giant of American music is still remembered for his wit and honesty; his compositions are immortal. He was also able to educate without a trace of academic stuffiness, another trait he shared with MTT.

The Overture to "Candide" opens the gala, but the party really kicks into gear Sept. 22-24 when SFS Principal Clarinet Carey Bell solos in the jazzy "Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs," mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and bass-baritone Ryan McKinney (SFS debut) pair for the delightful song cycle "Arias and Barcarolles," Ragnar Bohlin's SFS Chorus sings the life-affirming "Chichester Psalms," and the program ends with the Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story."

Nov. 2-5: Bernstein's blues-inflected "The Age of Anxiety," Symphony No. 2, with piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, still seems timely for today's stressed-out listeners, but the second half of the bill, "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life") by Richard Strauss, should provide a reassuring tonic.

MTT conducts a full concert performance of "Candide" Jan. 18-21, and I would get on this ASAP. Fans of the legendary cult musical-operetta will surely be drawn to DSH from everywhere. The glittering music, with brilliant words by lyricists from Richard Wilbur, John La Touche and Stephen Sondheim, has been performed with many revisions of the original libretto. The book is still problematical, but the score remains a masterwork.

I'm placing my bet on success with Jay Armstrong Johnson and coloratura soprano Meghan Picerno re-creating their praised New York City Opera portrayals of Candide and Cunegonde. I can't wait to see which gal pal MTT has recruited for the hilarious role of the Old Lady, and who will tackle the foolishly optimistic Dr. Pangloss.

The re-mastered film of "West Side Story" screens with David Newman conducting the SFS live Feb. 2-3, and the bash concludes Feb. 22-24 as "The SFS Celebrates the Bliss of Bernstein" with Andrey Boreyko conducting "Divertimento," and violinist Vadim Gluzman performing the elegant and lyrical Serenade (after Plato's "Symposium"). Bernstein was an early champion of Shostakovich, and the composer's mighty Symphony No. 5 fills the second half of the program.

More autumn highlights include MTT conducting Berlioz's phantasmagoric "Symphonie fantastique" and the Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Jeremy Denk, Sept. 28-Oct. 1.

Young conductor Krzysztof Urbanski returns to DSH Oct. 6-8 to lead Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, performed by Augustin Hadelich. The program opens with Penderecki's "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima," and closes with Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, written after the death of terrifying oppressor Joseph Stalin.

In mid-October, Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa leads music of compatriots Janacek, Dvorak and Smetana. Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 will be played by Piotr Anderszewski. Hrusa should be a natural for Janacek's thrilling "Taras Bulba."

Cellist Sol Gabetta makes her SFS debut with more Dvorak in October, when conductor Krzysztof Urbanski also presents Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra.

Osmo Vanska ends the month conducting the Shostakovich First and music of Sibelius, with Baiba Skride making her SFS debut with the beautiful Violin Concerto.

MTT is back on the podium in November with his Bernstein and Strauss program. He also conducts other American masters (and personal specialties): George Gershwin and Charles Ives (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 3, "The Camp Meeting"), Nov. 10-12. He closes November with another favorite composer: Mahler's charming Fourth Symphony will feature soprano Susanna Phillips.

December brings expected traditions back to DSH, and Ragnar Bohlin's mid-month leadership of "Messiah" looks promising, but Masaaki Suzuki's return, earlier in the month, to conduct Bach Collegium Japan in J.S. Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" seems a rare and special treat.


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