Reactions to the 2010-11 SFS season, and the way it was pitched, were mixed, and I took particular umbrage to the way it was disparaged on Lisa Hirsch's blog The Iron Tongue of Midnight. Lisa knows what she's talking about- I don't dispute that, but I believe there are two things going on no one is really paying attention to that are worth calling out or illuminating. Granted, by almost every measure for a seasoned attender of orchestral performances the next season is easily safe as far as the programming goes. Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), in his fifteenth year as conductor and Music Director, having just been handed a nice award by President Obama, certainly doesn't have job security issues. MTT will be welcome at SFS as long as he wants to stay.
The key words uttered by MTT at the press conference, and in my opinion the philosophy behind next year's season are:
"The single biggest thing that the world should understand is the level at which the orchestra is playing," Thomas said. "Even just in the past couple of years, the orchestra has risen so much in the sheen and subtlety of its playing, with these new young principals and the veterans. It knocks my socks off."
My take on this is MTT wants to show off what he's built with the SFS before he departs. I believe his aim is to eventually depart his post with the orchestra considered the best in the Americas and equal to any in Europe. The possible merits and potential of this is beside the point. But by my understanding, MTT believes it's worth making a case for, regardless of whether it's Sisyphean from the outset, and maybe it's not. Time will tell.
With that goal in mind, how does an orchestra accomplish this task? By playing music that few if any have heard live? By including works that only 10% of the audience at best may know and want to hear? How do you define "greatness" in these endeavors, which for all but a few in the audience are novel or educational experiences? You don't- and that is the genius behind SFS's next season.
My take on the programming for next season, when it's said and done, performed as MTT envisions it, is that no one will be able to dispute that this is one of the world's elite orchestras. How does one do that? By playing a lot of the standard repertory and showcasing the talent. Maybe I haven't been paying close enough attention, but this is the first time I've seen SFS create programs around the talents of individual players within the orchestra. If you've been paying attention these past few years, it's indisputable that Carey Bell, Stephen Paulson, Mark Inouye and the SFS chorus are performing at levels that are truly extraordinary. The next season explicitly has programs to showcase these individual talents. What other orchestra is doing this? What other orchestra can?
It is by extraordinary performances of the familiar by which we make these judgements, not the thrill of the new and exciting. For example, I wasn't hugely impressed with Bychkov's conducting of Rachmaninoff, but I do remember Bell's standout solo. In a new work by Gubaidulina I wouldn't have noticed it to the same effect because I would be more focused on the music itself and not how well it was being performed. I recently attended a fascinating performance by the Kronos Quartet, which I found totally engaging, only to learn afterward the composer of the piece wished they'd practiced it more. My unfamiliarity with the piece clouded my judgement and left me easily impressed. The composer wasn't. Who knew better what it was capable of being?
However, because I know it, I can easily tell a lame performance of the "Eroica" from a great one, and this only comes with familiarity and experience. There are many things on SFS's upcoming season I've never heard. Some will be great, some will probably suck, and the truth is this can vary from night to night. That's the nature of a live performance. If you want a predetermined outcome, you may as well sit home and listen to the stereo. I for one, expect to be surprised at a concert, for better or worse, hopefully for the better, which is why I've wagered the money for the ticket it will be worth it.
Yes, from a programming perspective, the next season is indeed "a safe bet." It's going to be up to MTT and the individual players of the orchestra to keep it from being boring. Where do you want to put your money?
More to come.