More Beethoven, and then even more Beethoven

Life at Davies felt like it returned to normal earlier this month with the San Francisco Symphony's Beethoven Project. The bad taste in one's mouth left by the musicians' strike was beginning to fade, MTT was back on the podium, the hall was full and there was a palpable excitement at the concerts -- especially the Saturday night performance featuring a newly revised version of John Adams' Absolute Jest, which premiered here last year to mixed reviews and my own befuddlement. I expected the piece to sound a bit different, but Adams essentially rebuilt the thing from the ground up, jettisoning the mix-tape/mash-up feel of it which made it seem trifling and revising it into something that sounded almost entirely different. The first third of it was completely new, and Adams inserted a healthy dose of his own earlier work, especially bits from Nixon in China. The new Jest sounded little like the first one and I didn't quite know what to make of the changes, except that I loved the way the 9th's scherzo was deconstructed in the beginning and then put back together piece by piece into a marvelously cohesive chunk.

Having attended a symposium earlier that afternoon which was supposed to feature MTT and Adams, along with a Beethoven scholar from San Jose State (Adams bailed) during which MTT played the piano, I wasn't paying clear enough attention to notice that during the evening he wasn't using his right arm to conduct, which was brought to my attention after the intermission by an out of town visitor. It turns out MTT had injured his shoulder (he's fine now). What's interesting to note is that according to someone who saw the piece performed the following afternoon, when someone else (I don't know who) stood in for MTT, is that what was heard on Saturday was a bit of a hash, and it was Sunday's performance that really sounded as Adams intended. You'll just have to take my word for that. Regardless, it garnered a huge ovation. For an interesting read regarding Adams and this piece in particular, see David Ocker's post about it on his Mixed Meters blog. Ocker, who is himself a composer and used to work with Frank Zappa, has been preparing Adam's scores for quite some time now.

The first half of the evening also featured Three Equali for Four Trombones- another curiosity meant to  present seldom heard music by the composer which was interesting but frankly if I never heard it again I wouldn't notice. However, what followed that, tenor Michael Fabiano's performance of An die ferne Geliebte, accompanied by John Churchwell on piano, was fantastic. You may recall Fabiano from San Francisco Opera's miserably inept Lucrezia Borgia- he was much more impressive here, under much more favorable conditions.

With one arm at his side MTT led the orchestra through a fairly satisfactory performance of Beethoven's 4th Symphony for the second half.

The next week featured the big event of the Beethoven Project, at least as far as I was concerned, which was the return of the Missa solemnis. Almost two years ago the massive work got an eagerly awaited performance that let just about everybody down. It was pretty horrible and its appearance this season as a mulligan raised hopes that this time they would get it right, and sure enough the orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and soloists Fabiano, Laura Claycomb, Sasha Cooke and Shenyang delivered on every level this time. Fabiano absolutely nailed his parts beautifully and Cooke was also exceptional. The chorus, which has really been performing at an astonishing level of beauty for the past couple of years, was magnificent. But even if the soloists and chorus had given the best performance the world has ever heard of the piece, without the orchestra performing at the same level the effort is for naught, and this was the problem the last time out. On this occasion they soared through the entire extremely daunting work and it was the fantastic performance which everyone wanted to hear two years ago.

The Missa solemnis was preceded by selections  from Palestrina's choral work Missa Papae Marcelli, composed circa 1560 and meant to inform us about from where Beethoven drew inspiration. It was beautifully sung, but one could sense the audience wanted the main event and could have lived without this appetizer.

The following Sunday afternoon featured a very well-attended performance of three of Beethoven's string quartets, each performed by a different group of musicians from the orchestra. I need to nitpick about an issue that may seem trivial to some but drives me slightly bonkers, and that's the issue of how the musicians dress for performances. I don't care who you are or what you're playing, when you have one musician onstage in what looks like her pajamas and the others are reasonably dressed for a professional engagement it makes everyone look foolish. The same thing holds true when the ensemble looks like they were randomly selected from malls in four different states, none of them within a thousand miles of the other. Please people, have some sartorial flair. I don't expect everyone do dress at the same level of Justin Timberlake-ish style sported by Jonathan Vinocour lately, but make an effort- we all know you can afford to go shopping for a decent wardrobe. As for the performance, it was good- how could it not be given the material and the skill of the players? But it would have been more illuminating to see one group traverse all three quartets (No.s 2, 10 & 12) which would have brought a deeper sense of how one engages with the composer.