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experience to see a true master take the stage. On May 6, 2007, I was able to see a true master, Michael Tilson Thomas, conduct one of the most elite symphony orchestras in the world. The San Francisco Symphony played Aaron Copland’s Short Symphony, Five Songs from Gustav Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13: Winter Daydreams. Each of these pieces created a new and exciting atmosphere in the concert hall, but Mahler’s piece highlighted the event. The unique use of a baritone, Thomas Hampson, in lieu of a soprano, which usually fills the part, gave me a new perspective on the piece that I hadn’t heard when listening to it before the concert. According to James Gaffigan, Associate Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Copland’s Short Symphony is an extremely difficult piece to both perform and orchestrate, which is why its first scheduled performances were cancelled by two top performing groups: the Boston Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra. However difficult the piece, the San Francisco Symphony traversed its musical landscape nearly flawlessly and produced a unique “Copland Sound”. The piece relied heavily on imitative polyphony and uses what Copland called a “Germ”, equivalent to Berlioz’s idée fixe and the motif of Beethoven’s Fifth. This “Germ” was passed around and, as its name implies, germinated to breed a completely new musical experience. The complexity of this piece grew further when it explored the musical capabilities of some unusual performing forces including a Hecklephone, a large English horn, and an alto flute, basically a hybrid of a flute and a clarinet. The alto flute, in my opinion, was a waste as its sound was muted by higher (the flute) and lower (the clarinet) instruments, which had
Jesse M Unger TA: Peter Hill 5/22/2007 much better carry throughout the concert hall. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the use of the viola, which is often drowned out by the cello and the violin. The two most interesting players to watch and listen to were the first oboist and the first trumpet, who played pranksters throughout the piece, constantly maiming the beautiful melodies of the strings. Copeland’s piece was an emotional rollercoaster: it started off lighthearted, then switched to melancholy (likely in the minor key), then modulated to the dramatic and mysterious, and finally returnuned to lighthearted. The piece finished, like many parts of Ran’s Private Game and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: with a bit of primitivism, featuring double-reeded instruments jumping seemingly at random to odd-pitched staccato notes all over the musical staff. Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn took my breath away. Now with a legendary baritone in his own right, Thomas Hampson, accompanying an impressive orchestra, Davies Symphony Hall lit up with rich sounds. Unlike the modern, even jazzy, sounds of Copland, Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn featured a collection of songs borrowing heavily from his own Germanic identity and “authentic folk poems reaching deep into the German past. (Keller, 40B) Before the concert, I had listened to some of Mahler’s songs, but, much to my chagrin, all of the vocals were sung by a soprano. I think the decision to have a baritone sing was a daring and brilliant move. Having a deep male voice belting out beautiful German lyrics evoked images of lederhosen and suspenders, very authentic Germanic attire. The first song, Lied des Verfolgten im Turm, was very march like and rigid, and about a prisoner conversing with his (possibly imaginary) girlfriend while in his cell. The juxtaposition here is ingenious: the prisoner is locked up, but says his “thoughts will tear apart the confines and the walls. Thoughts are free”. (46) Although he
Jesse M Unger TA: Peter Hill 5/22/2007 claims he is free in his thoughts, the music is confined and strictly metered, and therein lies the paradox. The second song, Der Tamboursg’sell, told a story of a drummer boy being marched to the gallows. Obviously (with the theme of death) the music reflected the morose spirit of the drummer boy and gave one last hurrah and goodbye before the percussion section suddenly stops, indicating death. Where the Lovely Trumpet Blows had a more obvious paradox. Contrary to what the name implies, trumpets are seldom heard playing in this piece, and when they do, they have mutes. Every instrument in the orchestra used a fade effect to give the impression they were becoming more and more distant. This diminishing effect, along with the blaring absence of percussion, contributed to a film-noir attitude established by the song. The fourth song of the set, Reveille, was the most militaristic of the bunch. Its salient features included blaring trumpets playing only at octave intervals to achieve the effect of a simple bugle and the strong voice of the baritone using “Tralali, tralalei, tralalera” as a recurring motif. The final song of the set, Primal Light, was a lamentation. Instead of having triumphant trumpets exhibited in the previous piece, this one used the brass to emphasize sadness. Extremely deliberate in pace, the song tempo could be estimated at about 60 bpm, half that of allegro. Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, dubbed Winter Daydreams by its publishers, finished off a spectacular afternoon of musical entertainment. Written fresh out of the Moscow Conservatoire, Tchaikovsky’s First was said to give him the most trouble. He became obsessive about writing it and, in the spirit of keeping the piece fresh and light, refused to work on it at night. (Gaffigan) The piece started out with some short notes from the violins with the violas and cellos carrying the melody and woodwinds offering descending notes. The violins finally got the melody and carried it to the first climax,
Jesse M Unger TA: Peter Hill 5/22/2007 which was followed by a calm, syncopated tune from the violins. The first movement also featured a rocking theme similar to the accompaniment in parts of George Gershwin’s Summertime. The second movement really defined the piece with its use of Tchaikovsky’strademark “slow bow” technique. Using counterpoint between the oboes and bassoons and a “flirtatious flute”, the second movement sounded like the love theme from Star Wars. The end of the movement spawned a climactic tutti with a grand entrance from the trumpets and trombones. The third movement added some melancholy to the piece. A “tortured soul” element begins, but is interrupted by a hopeful theme, indicated by the winds, that becomes playful. The last movement ends like another of Tchaikovsky’s great works: The 1812 Overture (minus the canons). Though it started out sad and mysterious, the movement quickly turned into another orchestral tutti with cymbal crashes and forte notes from every section to give a marvelous piece a grand exit. The San Francisco Symphony did a tremendous job of playing distinct set of challenging works. Thomas Hampson was a terrific addition to the symphony as his rich baritone voice gave Des Knaben Wunderhorn a new twist. Michael Tilson Thomas proved to me why he his known as such a prolific composer. To see a true master take the stage is a tremendous treat. I saw two.
Jesse M Unger TA: Peter Hill 5/22/2007 Works Cited
Gaffigan, James. "A Pre-Concert Lecture on Selected Works of Copland, Mahler and Tchaikovsky." George R. Roberts Foundation. San Francisco Symphony Performs Copland, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA. 6 May 2007. Keller, James M. Playbill for San Francisco Symphony, May 2007. New York: PLAYBILL Incorporated.
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