The first time I heard Anne-Sophie Mutter live was back in Boston days. She is of course famously beautiful and she used to say she preferred dresses that left her shoulders bare because she played better when she felt the violin against her bare skin. During intermission I was trapped behind two slow dowagers and one said to the other in slightly bewildered tones, “Isaac Stern doesn’t need his shoulders bare.”
Mutter and her playing are just as beautiful as ever, judging from her appearance with the San Francisco Symphony a few weeks ago for the North American premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s In tempus praesens. Gubaidulina, who takes her own path somewhere between Shostakovich and Arvo Part, is the first Phyllis Wattis Composer in Residence at the Symphony; I had heard some of her music back in Boston, but this was my first chance in a long time to hear her work live.
This was an amazing half-hour. I’d describe the music, but instead I’ll just say you should buy it and come up with your own evocative metaphors – just trust me when I say it’s even better, much more so, heard live. I hope Mutter, with her well-known commitment to new music, will continue to travel around with the piece.
It was such a success that the second half of the concert, Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and La Valse, left me itchy and restless. Normally I love Ravel (and I have to quote my favorite Ravel line: “People call me artificial – have they never considered that I am artificial by nature?”) but after the profoundly spiritual and nature-echoing Gubaidulina the waltzes grated on me and seemed silly and shallow, especially in a coarse performance that brought out the blare in the orchestra (though I should give Tilson Thomas credit for the beautiful handling of the first half, and for the delightfully spiky American Overture by Prokofiev that opened the concert). I spent my time coming up with things that I thought would have made a better coupling: maybe something by Beethoven, or Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night.
I wish I had thought of leaving at intermission. I was tired anyway. The night before I had heard Barbara Bonney in recital, and it was a dispiriting evening: her voice sounded worn and strained, dry and forced, and I wondered if she had some sort of unannounced cold or allergy problem since she seemed to have trouble with breath support. There was obviously a lot of love and respect for her in the room, which made the concert that much more painful. It was one of those evenings when I think about the time lost and look at how much I spent on my ticket and I just feel sad about life. So out of two evenings, at least I had the half hour of Gubaidulina, and that honestly made it all worthwhile.
The symphony had a more consistently successful outing the next week, and another celebrated soloist in Martha Argerich. This concert was probably one of the most anticipated of the season, at least by me; I was so excited about the Ligeti Requiem that I actually kind of forgot that this would also be my first time hearing Argerich live.
One of the great things about going to the Thursday performances in Civic Center is that the Asian Art Museum is open late that night, so instead of just wandering around killing time before the theater (which, I have to admit, is basically all I ever really do anyway), I could wander the galleries, in particular the new Bhutan exhibit, which incorporates many fascinating videos of that country’s sacred dance and music (though I have to admit to being a bit amused by the museum’s reverent insistence on the religious origin and nature of the art we were seeing – it apparently never occurs to people that all those crucifixions and Madonnas by the Old (and not always so old) Masters that line galleries all over the world also have been torn out of their religious context).
I think some of that chanted aura, and also the sense of religious works surviving out of context, went into my hearing of the concert, which opened with the SF Symphony Chorus director Ragnar Bohlin conducting an excellent performance of Gabrieli’s In ecclesiis, with some of the chorus on stage and the rest lining the two side aisles to re-create the separated choirs of a Venetian church.
After that Tilson Thomas came out to conduct the Ligeti Requiem. He spoke beforehand, and for once I didn’t mind it; in fact, I felt some kinship, because I realized he trusted the Symphony audience as little as I did. A sizeable chunk of that crowd can only even pretend to listen to music that has been certified as a masterpiece, the more familiar the better, which makes them not the most receptive crowd for modern music. Tilson Thomas cited a Rilke poem, briefly and appropriately, to set the mood. (I had a link to a blog that gave the whole poem, but that entry seems to have disappeared, so maybe we should all just go read Rilke and think about Ligeti.) (I was also grateful Tilson Thomas didn’t mention the music’s use in Kubrick’s 2001; no offense to that film, which I enjoyed when I saw it years ago, but what’s important and intriguing about this music is not its use in a film which, I suspect, most people haven’t seen very recently – yet 2001 always comes up in articles about Ligeti. We certainly live in a movie culture. But I do have to admit that during the performance I kept thinking about Kozintsev's King Lear, which I recently saw again; I think a Ligeti soundtrack would have been even better than the one Shostakovich supplied for it.)
Tilson Thomas then conducted one will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of this season at the San Francisco Symphony. I realize there are people who find Ligeti “difficult”, but I only realize that because they say so; to me this music is so jaw-droppingly beautiful, and so nakedly and immediately available, that other responses seem a bit unreal to me. Not witty like Le Grand Macabre (though writing a Requiem Mass when commissioned to celebrate a new music festival is, as Thomas May’s characteristically excellent program note remarked, “characteristically provocative”), it has a similar mood-altering effect, in its somber way. Talking with Ms TS afterwards, I found that I was not the only one to feel it as cries and moans emerging from a swirling mist. There’s a part at the end when the cembalo startlingly shivers in, and I was reminded but in a good way of Beecham’s quip about harpsichords sounding like two skeletons making love. Hearing Ligeti live is always amazing and enriching. And while Hannah Holgerson, the soprano, and Annika Hudak, the mezzo, were outstanding, I think the Symphony chorus was the real hero of the performance. I hope the Symphony revives this piece soon.
During intermission I was yet again blocked behind two dowagers making their slow way up to the lobby. One was noting to the other with implied disapproval of what we had just heard that “Mozart’s Requiem is much more melodic.” I’m sure Mozart would be horrified to discover that his funeral mass is now preferred for its prettiness. I’m not sure why “melodic” is a great recommendation in a lament for the dead, anyway. Times and places and musical styles change, but dowagers do not.
After the intermission Martha Argerich came out to play the rather Gershwinesque Ravel Piano Concerto in G major, and this time Ravel did not seem like an irrelevant intrusion after a profound contemporary work. I mentioned to Lisa at the intermission that after the Ligeti, and after all I’d heard about Argerich, I was going to be disappointed if she didn’t make the piano burst into flames. Well, guess what? She did. She came out, looking rather shy and stumbling slightly. She sat down and ripped through an electric performance that was poetic and strong, fleet without being rushed, dazzling and deep. She had to repeat the third movement because the audience wouldn’t let her leave.
Where do you go after that? Home might have been best, but there was one more piece. Liszt’s tone poem Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo was in the unfortunate position of being a double anti-climax after Ligeti and Argerich. I enjoyed it, and it actually had some interesting submerged links with the rest of the program (Hungarian composers, political oppression, an individual against society), but it was really in an impossible position, and the music though often striking and beautiful also has its Romantic clichés, or what strike us as such; talking with Lisa afterwards, I wondered whether some of Liszt was like the Tarantino of Pulp Fiction – an innovator whose innovations were so rapidly absorbed that they don’t strike latecomers as innovations at all.
It’s nice when a concert you’ve been anticipating since it was announced actually lives up to your hopes.
Somewhere amid all these concerts I heard soprano Nicole Cabell (accompanied by Spencer Myer) in Berkeley (and I just checked my calendar because I could have sworn this concert was after the Ligeti/Argerich concert, but it was before, and I heard several other things in those weeks as well; how busy I am!). She and her voice are both fresh and lovely, though a few members of the audience, more querulous than I, felt that she sometimes sacrificed expressiveness for sheer beauty of sound. I saw their point, but I was happy to bask in the sheer beauty, though merely lovely sounds can become a bit monotonous.
To me any problems had more to do with her program. The second half had a cycle of five songs (I Hate Music) by Bernstein, which was five songs too many, and I have to say that nine Spanish songs in the first half were kind of a lot of Spanish songs; once again I couldn't help noticing a certain similarity in theme and style, and in the spirit of my generic Russian Song, I offer a generic Spanish Song, titled, of course, Mi Corazon:
My hair is dark and curly,
My eyes are black and sparkle,
But a dog has bitten my heart
Ay yi yi yi yi yi, yi yi yi
I play guitar and sing,
And the boys all come to listen,
But a dog has run off with my heart
Ay yi yi yi yi yi,
Ay yi yi yi yi yi yi . . . .