Michael Tilson Thomas

Preview of Boris Godunov at SFS

Boris-ScenicPreliminarySketchJune is going to be a very opera-heavy month in San Francisco this year, with the return of Der Ring des Nibelungen starting on Tuesday at the War Memorial Opera House. For those intimidated by Wagner's 15-hour epic (or maybe you don't think going to 12 operas in three weeks is enough), San Francisco Symphony is performing Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov this Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.

The semi-staged production (preliminary sketch by Mac Mock Design pictured) was conceived by Michael Tilson Thomas and  is directed by James Darrah, who has had great success with previous work at SFS including Peter Grimes in 2014 and On the Town in 2016.

Based on Pushkin's play, this tense political drama will be heard in its 1869 original version. The cast of 18 vocal soloists, many of whom are Eastern European -- bass Stanislav Trofimov is the title character -- also includes local favorites such as mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook (Innkeeper) and bass Philip Skinner (Nikititsch).

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Candide at SFS

Candide-sfs-2018* Notes *
San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas celebrate the birth centennial of Leonard Bernstein with a delightful rendering of his Candide that opened last night. The concert version was animated and very funny with fine playing and singing all around.

Though done as a concert, this version of the operetta was made for the Scottish Opera in 1988. It was striking how theatrical and engaging the piece is despite a lack of frills, only a few props and costumes here and there.

Most of the comedy and drama came through simply in the gestures and interactions of the soloists, chorus, orchestra members, and even conductor with each other and the audience. Of course, this could only work because the piece itself is charming and was played and sung with clarity and vim. The sound design from Tom Clark was flawless, we could hear the narration and asides without squeaks or other distractions.

The music sounded vibrant, even when soprano Meghan Picerno (Cunegonde) harassed some of the brass players and the timpanist at the end of Act I. MTT infused both the orchestra and chorus with a nice ease and effortless cheekiness.

The soloists are all clearly talented singing actors. Even from the first tier, the cheerful shrugs or coy head tilts of tenor Andrew Stenson in the title role read plainly. His voice is pretty and sweet. Meghan Picerno's Cunegonde is amusing, her high notes soared and she conveys emotion not only in her body but with her sound. Both Stenson and Picerno brought a certain gravity to the end of the piece, after all the silliness, the contrast was stark and effective.

All the other singing was great, though baritone Michael Todd Simpson did trip over a few words as narrator, he is endearing and his Pangloss was perfectly pompous. It was fun to see and hear the artistic director of Merola Sheri Greenawald as the Old Lady, she really moves gracefully and has perfect comedic timing.

Tattling *
I did not hear any talking or electronic sounds where I was in the First Tier. There were a few people who left the hall in the middle of the performance during both acts, odd given the short 2 hour run time.

I had to run several blocks in the rain to this performance, traffic was worse than I expected and the Performing Arts Garage was full, so I only got into my seat at 7:59pm.

Das Klagende Lied at SFS

Harvey Cooke* Notes *
Last weekend Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony presented Das Klagende Lied with some wonderful vocal soloists (Joélle Harvey and Sasha Cooke pictured left with dancers, photograph by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Symphony) and a somewhat incoherent but pretty staging. The early Mahler cantata is narrated by four singers and a chorus, since the characters aren't played by the vocalists, having a staging confuses the plot.

The biggest problem with the performance was not James Darrah's direction, which involved four dancers, two children, and lots of tree video art from Adam Larsen. It was the piece itself, which dates from 1880, and is one of the earliest works of Mahler's that still exists. It sounded a lot like substandard Wagner, and while interesting, it did not make for compelling drama.

The singers were great, baritone Brian Mulligan is rich toned, tenor Michael König is robust, and soprano Joélle Harvey is as clear as ever. Best of all is mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, whose ethereal voice has brilliant high and low notes. She also sounded lovely in the Songs of a Wayfarer that was performed before the intermission.

The orchestra sounded shimmery throughout the Sunday afternoon performance and the brass was clear and bright in the beginning Blumine. MTT kept a stately pace.

Tattling *
The audience was patient and silent, giving a standing ovation at the end.

Susan Graham at SFS

Susan-Graham-by-Dario_Acosta* Notes *
Susan Graham (pictured left, photograph by Dario Acosta) is singing Berlioz's La Mort de Cléopâtre with San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas this weekend. The piece, a replacement for the previously announced Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, is quite suited to Ms. Graham. Her clear high notes and fully developed sound work well with its descriptive, declamatory nature.

The orchestra supported her in a characteristic glimmering way. The basses were particularly nice at the end. Graham sang "L'île inconnue" from Berlioz's Les nuits d'été song cycle as an encore.

The Berlioz was sandwiched by more 19th century music including Brahms' rather odd Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Schumann's Fourth Symphony. The cello and oboe were lovely in the Schumann, which was recorded for a future release.

* Tattling *
There was light talking during Brahms and even some whispering during Schumann, though we were asked emphatically not to make noise because of the recording.

SoundBox's Outré

IMG_0914* Notes *
SoundBox's latest program, titled Outré, featured French avant-garde music over seven centuries. Beautifully curated, the engaging music ranged from Pérotin's polyphonic Sederunt principes with a cappella male voices and portative organ to Messiaen's Couleurs de la cité celeste for solo piano and instrumental ensemble, including the many gongs seen in the photograph to the left.

Michael Tilson Thomas lead the musicians and amiably talked the audience through the pieces one by one. Selections from Jean-Féry Rebel's Les élémens was a cheerful place to start, and the sprightly French Baroque music was such fun. This certainly set the stage for the program to come.

It was lovely to hear the musicians of San Francisco Symphony in this more intimate venue. Principal oboist Eugene Izotov played Ravel's Pièce en forme de Habanera and Saint-Saëns' Molto allegro from Oboe Sonata in D major, while principal flutist Tim Day played Debussy's Syrinx. Principal percussionist Jacob Nissly especially impressed in Darius Milhaud's Concerto for Percussion and Small Orchestra, Opus 109. Ending with an excerpt of Milhaud's Scaramouche was a festive touch.

The French-inspired garden installation designed by Luke Kritzeck with a digital reflecting pool by video designer Adam Larsen was rather pretty. The videos during the music did not distract but did not look like screensavers either.

Tattling *
The youngish audience was mostly quiet. There seats are not guaranteed for these sold-out events and we were lucky enough to find a friend in line just before 8pm. Those who did not line up mostly milled about at the back of the venue, though a couple did stand directly in front of my date (we were seated by the west side of the first stage) for the second set.

Beethoven Marathon at SFS

Karita_Mattila-Headshot-PhotoCredit-LauriEriksson* Notes *
Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony recently recreated a 1808 concert at the Theater an der Wien of Beethoven works. The engaging performance on Saturday night lasted four hours and forty minutes with three intermissions and required a chorus, two different versions of the orchestra, seven vocal soloists, and a pianist.

Undoubtedly a high point of the evening came when soprano Karita Mattila (pictured left, photograph by Lauri Eriksson) sang Ah! perfido, Opus 65, the second piece on the program. Her voice is gloriously resonant from top to bottom and her performance was riveting.

The other major soloist, Jonathan Biss, played Piano Concerto No. 4 with precision. He is not without passion, but channels the emotions of the piece with subtlety. Later, in place of where Beethoven improvised on the piano in the original concert, Biss took the stage for Piano Fantasy in G minor, which showed his virtuosity.

The concert began with one set of personnel making up the orchestra, playing the first half starting with Beethoven's Sixth. It was strange to hear this piece without William Bennett playing the oboe soli, though both clarinetist Carey Bell and bassoonist Stephen Paulson played beautifully. The horns were not clear. Somehow the phrasing of the music did not have a nice arc. The Fifth, which came after the second intermission, was significantly stronger.

The chorus sounded cohesive in the selections from the Mass in C major. Of the four soloists, tenor Nicolas Phan was a stand out, though they all sang well. Everyone did wonderfully in the Choral Fantasy that ended the concert, and the piece made sense as a finale for this epic performance, as it brought back our piano soloist, most of the principal singers, the chorus, and the orchestra.

* Tattling *
Someone behind a friend of mine in the Right Terrace kicked his chair and insisted he was being disrespectful for not applauding enough.

MTT Conducts L'Histoire du soldat

Mahler51213* Notes * 
This weekend Michael Tilson Thomas (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) is conducting seven members of the San Francisco Symphony in performances of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat. The vivid piece is narrated by Elvis Costello, who does a fine job declaiming his lines. Nick Gabriel (The Soldier) is earnest and Malcolm McDowell (The Devil) certainly is charming. It is adorable when MTT himself speaks the lines of The King in Part II. The playing is incisive and spirited. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik sounded particularly lovely, as did clarinetist Carey Bell.

The performance starts with John Adams conducting his 1982 piece Grand Pianola Music, which is being recorded for future release. Adams addresses the audience before commencing the piece, explaining the genesis of the piece and its influences. He also notes a tuba solo in Part I, which he called a "bovine moment."

The work, in fact, is startlingly beautiful. The pianists, Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin play cohesively. The orchestra, which included woodwinds, brass, and percussion, sound grounded. Synergy Vocals is wonderfully ethereal, the three singers make for haunting sirens.

* Tattling * 
The audience on the orchestra level was very quiet for the John Adams. For the most part people were also quiet for the Stravinsky, but a woman in Row W Seat 102 was compelled to whisper to those adjacent to her as the ensemble played in Part II.

Peer Gynt at SFS

SFSPeerGynt-4668* Notes * 
This week Michael Tilson Thomas conducts San Francisco Symphony in a multimedia production (actor Ben Huber as Peer Gynt and dancer Janice Lancaster Larsen as Ingrid pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) of Peer Gynt. The score included music by Edvard Grieg, Alfred Schnittke, and Robin Holloway. Holloway's Ocean Voyage was used in Part II Scene 3, and had a Wagnerian feel to it. It did seem disproportionally long compared to the other pieces.

The playing was slightly off-kilter at times in the first half, especially with some of the choral entrances. Nonetheless, the music gleamed eerily, and the chorus sounded particularly haunting in the second half. The violin and viola soli in Scene 2 of Part I were played beautifully.

Rose Portillo was convincing as Åse, Peer's mother. Her speaking voice is rich and dark. Soprano Joélle Harvey (Solveig) sounded sweet and pure. Ben Huber's Peer Gynt was boyish and sprightly.

The production, directed and designed by James Darrah, made use of a sculptural scrim placed above the musicians. Adam Laresen's videos were, for the most part, tasteful and the shape of the scrim rendered the images more abstract. This did not work as well for projections of the human face, which became distorted in a cartoonish fashion. The use of the limited space, given the symphony on stage and the chorus in the Center Terrace, was artful.

* Tattling * 
The microphones used were occasionally too loud, and emitted crackles and pops in the middle of Part I.

Renée Fleming at SFS

Renee-fleming-2012-decca-andrew-eccles* Notes * 
Last night Michael Tilson Thomas conducted San Francisco Symphony in a program of mostly Debussy with a smattering of Canteloube after the intermission. The evening began with Debussy's textured, fussy ballet, Jeux. This was followed by seven Debussy songs orchestrated by Robin Holloway. Soprano Renée Fleming (pictured left, photograph courtesy of Decca and Andrew Eccles) sounded shimmery and pretty over the orchestra. Occasionally she was a little difficult to hear, but for the most part, this music is well-suited to her voice.

The three Canteloube songs were all selections from his Chants d'Auvergne. "Malurous qu'o uno fenno" is funny and cute, while "Baïlèro" is more ethereal. The symphony ended with Debussy's La mer, which I find somewhat silly, but was played here with vim and spirit.

* Tattling * 
The audience members were fairly silent, at least those seated near the stage.

MTT conducts Samuel Carl Adams & Mahler

  2ndsVlasMTT-by-Bill-Swerbenski-cropped-4x5* Notes * 
Last night Michael Tilson Thomas conducted San Francisco Symphony (pictured left, photograph by Bill Swerbenski) in the first of three performances of Drift and Providence by Samuel Carl Adams and Symphony No. 5 by Mahler. The Adams piece marks a West Coast premiere. The 20 minute work is scored for many instruments, including electronica, but is surprisingly quiet. It had a rather dry quality to it, and gave me the odd sensation of having the inside of my thoracic cavity gently smoothed by a fine-grained sandpaper.

The second half of the evening was devoted to the Mahler. The brass was quite forward and not particularly subtle. I enjoyed Mark Inouye's bright trumpet playing. The pizzicato in the Scherzo was lively and the Adagietto was neither too fast nor too lax.

* Tattling * 
Someone was excited up in the Center Terrace, and my companion noted this by creating a diagram in his program. I misunderstood at first and thought the Associate Concertmaster was behaving badly, which seemed highly unlikely.

Bluebeard at SFS

Mtt-bay-taper* Notes * 
This week Michael Tilson Thomas conducts San Francisco Symphony (pictured left) in a program of Liszt and Bartók. The opening performance began with Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1. Jeremy Denk played fluidly, but with clear articulation. Both Denk and the orchestra could sound blustery or playful as the music required.

The staged version of Duke Bluebeard's Castle was directed by Nick Hillel with help from co-director Nick Corrigan, who also did the video and visual design. A speaker, Ken Ruta, gives a theatrical introduction to the piece, unfortunately, he talks over the music, though just a little. Adam Wiltshire's set consists of five tall scrims placed in layers, the ones left and right being more downstage. There is also a large sculpture, made up of different pyramidal shapes, hanging high above the orchestra. Light and images are projected on all the aforementioned surfaces. The most successful of the projections are the more abstract ones. The use of motion can be occasionally overwhelming.

The music, both singing and playing, was most impressive on Thursday night. The role of Judith suits Michelle DeYoung's voice, which has a pentrating quality without being too acid. Alan Held is an effective Bluebeard, and sang with strength. The orchestra shimmered, MTT kept the volume under control, and the music flowed rather beautifully.

* Tattling * 
A cellular phone rang on the orchestra level as Ruta spoke at the beginning of Bluebeard.

Gil Shaham plays Brahms at SFS

Gil Shaham 1 - photo credit Boyd Hagen* Notes * 
Michael Tilson Thomas is conducting San Francisco Symphony in a program of Wagner and Brahms this week. Yesterday's performance began with the Prelude to Act II of Lohengrin. For some reason, without the rest of the opera, this music struck me as being a bit more absurd than it usually does. The brass sounded clean but the woodwinds bordered on squeaky. The following Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 77 by Brahms with soloist Gil Shaham (pictured above, photograph by Boyd Hagen) was more nuanced, the dynamics were clear. Shaham seemed very happy to be playing with the orchestra, and listened attentively to each section. His own playing is precise but never cold. The woodwinds were lovely, especially William Bennett's solo at the beginning of the Adagio. The Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace was exactly that, filled with an irrepressible joy but never out of control as far as tempo is concerned.

The last piece of the evening was also from Brahms, his Quartet No. 1 in G minor for piano and strings, orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg. The soli from Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik were particularly beautiful. The principal clarinetist also played rather well. The final movement (Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto) was a great deal of fun.

* Tattling * 
There was whispering when Gil Shaham was not playing in the violin concerto, and between movements throughout the performance. The person in O 111 hit me (very lightly) in the head with her scarf as she put it on during the ovation for Shaham. I was also elbowed by the person in N 113 as he checked the time on his mobile after the last piece.

MTT conducts Mozart, Adès, and Stravinsky

Ades 4x6 By Maurice Foxall * Notes * 
This week San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas performs a program of Mozart, Adès (pictured left, photograph by Maurice Foxall), and Stravinsky. Saturday's performance began with Mozart's Symphony No. 35 in D major, K.385, Haffner, which was played with much volume and heft. The tempi were not particularly distinctive, and the Menuetto lacked lightness. The Mozart was followed by a San Francisco Symphony co-commission of Thomas Adès entitled Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra. The piece itself had a pretty atmospheric quality, but Tal Rosner's video installation was simply absurd. The images of the beach were first obscured by some sort of Swiss cheese shadow that spun around and around. The rest of the video looked like a tasteful advertisement for either coats or seaweed, and there was one circle that appeared with a particular note in the brass that was extremely amusing.

After the intermission came Stravinsky's Petrushka. The playing was clear and forceful. The interplay between trumpet, bassoon, and flute was quite pleasing. MTT and the orchestra gave a charming encore, Stravinsky's Scherzo à la Russe. The playing was filled with vim.

* Tattling * 
My date absolutely hated the Adès and mooed during the ovation. I could only laugh.

MTT conducts Missa Solemnis at SFS

Missa-solemnis * Notes * 
This week San Francisco Symphony and Chorus have been performing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas kept the musicians synchronized. The orchestra was often rather loud, but the playing was clean. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik's the violin solo in the Sanctus was beautiful. The brass was warm and pretty. The chorus was impressive, more so than the four soloists, though given a mass, perhaps this is appropriate. Both bass Ain Anger and mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus had a tendency to blend in well with the sound of the chorus and the orchestra. Gregory Kunde's voice had more ping, yet could sound a little constricted. Christine Brewer did not overpower her fellow soloists and never screamed the notes. It was gratifying to hear this piece live.

* Tattling * 
A man in BB 20 on the Orchestra Level spoke twice, but for the most part, only a few people around me whispered infrequently.

MTT & Anne Sofie von Otter at SFS

Anne Sofie von Otter - photo credit Mats Backer * Notes * 
This week San Francisco Symphony performs a lovely program of Hindemith, Stenhammer, Nielsen, Sibelius, Grieg, and Brahms. Before Michael Tilson Thomas conducted Hindemith's Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass on Thursday night, he addressed the audience, saying the program notes, while good, did not convey how much joy there was in playing it. He also did an impression of Leonard Bernstein. The piece was played with vigor but prettiness. The end of the first part had a nice expansiveness without being overwhelming as far as volume. The principal trombone played particularly well in the slow section of Part II. The big soloist of the evening was mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, who joined San Francisco Symphony in a sampling of Scandinavian songs. The texts were mostly in Swedish, but there were ones in Danish, Norwegian, and Finnish too. Von Otter has a pure, lucid sound. She did seem at times a bit ahead of the orchestra. The sustained notes of Grieg's En Svane were beautiful, as was the illusory Var det en dröm? that ended the set. Von Otter gave a delightful encore of Wilhelm Peterson-Berger's Aspåkers-polska. The second half of the performance was devoted to Brahms' Serenade No. 1 in D Major. The playing was pleasant, though the horn had a couple painful notes in the first movement. The brass did sound nice in the second Scherzo. The clarinet and oboe were exceptionally winsome in this piece.

* Tattling * 
A watch alarm rang throughout MTT's talk before Hindemith. The audience was exceedingly silent during the songs. There was whispering during Brahms, and applause between the last two movements.