Last night I was at Davies Hall for one of the San Francisco Symphony's Britten Centennial concerts, this one featuring the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, along with Copland's Danzón Cubano and Shostakovich's final symphony, No. 15 in A major, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.
The Copland piece was brief and fun, almost a fanfare sort of thing. It was enjoyable, but I'm not sure what the connection was with either of the other pieces, except that the program was officially called "Midcentury Masters" and Tilson Thomas likes Copland's music. The problem I have with pieces like this is that the audience has just barely settled in and then it's over and we have to sit there, mood disrupted, while they re-arrange all the chairs for the next piece. It hardly seems worthwhile breaking the flow like that.
I enjoyed the Serenade. I was in the first row, practically at the feet of the soloists, tenor Toby Spence and horn player Robert Ward, so my experience was probably better than that of someone placed in the far reaches of that intractable cavern, Davies Hall. Given the performance space (I have often wished that Davies, and also Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, could be blown up and rebuilt at no more than two-thirds of their current size, and perhaps made less 1970s-clunky as well) the ideally intimate atmosphere for this piece was just not going to be there. They compensated by going for more grandeur; each of the six songs, plus the opening and closing horn solos, felt like a separate monument placed before us, carved out of something solid, if not granite then oak. In case this makes it sound too forbidding, Spence was a sweet-voiced soloist and brought conviction to his numbers, particularly the more haunted middle songs (Blake's The Sick Rose and the fifteenth-century anonymous A Lyke-Wake Dirge). His diction was very clear, though once again I wonder why the Symphony doesn't use surtitles, which might have cut down on some of the endless program-rustling – the couple next to me, and keep in mind that if I'm right at the feet of the soloists so are they, had quite the mid-performance exchange about what was being sung (though as far as audience behavior goes, this was one of my better recent trips to Davies).
After the intermission came the Shostakovich 15 – this is the one that famously contains quotations not only from the composer's own earlier works but also Rossini's William Tell Overture and the Annunciation of Death from Wagner's Walkure. It's a somewhat strange, baffling, and haunting work, and it can be emotionally powerful in the way available only to things that express their emotions indirectly. Last night the first movement was terrifically convincing, mysterious yet bonkers, as is the way of this symphony. There was quite a spontaneous burst of applause when the movement ended, and it was deserved. After that – well, I just don't know. The pace slowed to a crawl, and I felt all urgency drain from the music, as it unfolded in a stately sweep that might have been better suited to Bruckner or indeed Die Walkure itself. Can something fall apart by congealing? To me it seemed that the frantic, quicksilver intelligence of the first movement had been replaced by a glacier. And whatever hushed mood of majesty the artists were trying to convey was lost on the audience, which suddenly was filled with dozens of coughers. The couple next to me imperturbably kept on reading their programs through the whole thing.