* Notes *
Yesterday Michael Tilson Thomas conducted San Francisco Symphony in a program of Knussen's Symphony No. 3, Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder, Barber's Andromache's Farewell, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4. Soprano Deborah Voigt returned to San Francisco Symphony as the soloist for the Strauss and Barber, a performance she will reprise with MTT at Carnegie Hall in March.
These performances mark a premiere of Oliver Knussen's Symphony No. 3, Opus 18 at San Francisco Symphony. The piece, inspired by Ophelia from Hamlet, is quite short, only about 15 minutes long. The work has a strong percussive element, as the orchestration requires 28 percussion instruments divided among six musicians. The woodwinds and brass seemed to come out more than the strings, the overall effect was eerily metallic. The flutes parts were particularly disturbing, and I had a visceral reaction, it pained my intestines.
The Last Four Songs of Richard Strauss were written between 1946 and 1948. The first by composition, "Der Abendrot," is set to a poem by Joseph Eichendorff, and the three others are poems by Hermann Hesse. The music is lush and rather romantic, somewhat melancholic at first but ultimately tranquil. Deborah Voigt sounded tentative in "Frühling," but sang the other three songs wonderfully. Some of the syllables at ends of phrases were lost, I could barely hear the "Ruh" in "September" or the end of the word "verirren" in "Im Abendrot." Otherwise, Ms. Voigt's diction was clear, she pronounced the German accurately. She has fine control of her vibrato and her breathing and was not shrill in the least. As for the orchestra, the violin solos were strong, as were the piccolos in "Im Abendrot." My favorite moment was in "September" when Voigt's voice dissolved into the horn solo.
Samuel Barber's Andromache's Farewell had its first performance at SF Symphony last night as well. The text is John Patrick Creagh's translation of The Trojan Women. In the play, Talthybius has come to tell Andromache that her son, Astyanax, is to be thrown from the walls of Troy by the Greeks. Barber's piece is Andromache's farewell to her son. The subject appeals to me, but the music, sadly, did not. Voigt sang well, and her diction was quite clear in English.
The evening ended with a vivacious performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-Flat Major, Opus 60.
* Tattling *
The performance was not full, and the audience was well-behaved, no watch alarms or cell phones went off. Some young ladies came in at the last second for the Knussen, in the middle of the First Tier. They did not seem to enjoy the music, and one of them aggressively turned the pages of her program. They whispered, but were not audible. They left after the piece, not waiting to hear Deborah Voigt at all.
The lights did not come up in time for the beginning of the Strauss, even though the poems and translations were printed in the program. Someone rustled a plastic bag during the words "Falling! Falling!" in Andromache. There was some muttering during the Barber, but most were silent for Beethoven, except for when MTT hopped off his podium during the 3rd movement, which made some laugh.
Michael Tilson Thomas had a question and answer segment after the performance. It was easy to hear why he has his own radio show, he is entertaining, saying that most conductors were "control freaks" and explaining his style was more like a director of actors. He considers music a wrestling match between instinct and intelligence. Amusingly, he also compared himself to the catcher in a flying trapeze act and mentioned that Wagner should not have written his own words.