Lasting eleven months and featuring over 200 concerts, the abundant season calendar of the San Francisco Symphony has too much to choose from for most people. It's also a prime example of how arts organizations can't please all the people all the time: some will say it's too predictable, while others will say there isn't enough Beethoven and Bach (by the way, Brahms continues to get way too many performances -- there should be an immediate moratorium on performing any and all music by Brahms for a good ten years -- enough already!). On the surface the season appears to be so large because it can be -- that such a culturally rich city like San Francisco can support its great orchestra, in its great venue because it's, well, San Francisco. But that's not really the case anymore, and while the SF Symphony is undoubtedly one of the better run performing arts organizations in the country, it's not immune to what's happening everywhere, meaning it's getting pretty hard to sell out Davies Symphony Hall. It does happen, just not as often as it should, or at least often enough to justify a season of such length, and presumably, expense.
Few organizations have figured out the answer to this problem, and those that have have taken measures others can't. There aren't any easy or one-size-fits-all solutions. However, looking at the season calendar, there are three things that could, and should, be changed, and fast: first, there aren't enough women on the season calendar, as either conductors or composers, and the SFS should be doing a better job on changing this; second, we're 17 years into a new century, so anything written before 1950 is hardly "new" and anything written in the 20th Century is no longer contemporary, and the SFS needs more pieces on the calendar composed during the last 20 years or so in the service of identifying a new "core" rep and helping establish the composers who are creating it; three, with more than 2,700 seats to fill for each performance in Davies Symphony Hall, something's gotta give, and it's time for the Symphony's Board to sit down and have some long, hard talks about the organization's future because the current one isn't sustainable. A smaller venue and a shorter season needs to come into view at some point, barring some cultural miracle or an act of philanthropy equal to the parting of the Red Sea.
However, some things remains constant: there are always at least a couple of dozen concerts worth seeing every season; there's something for everyone; and narrowing the list down to ten or twelve concerts is always a difficult task. So that's what I'm here for -- if you can only see ten concerts this season, choose these, and get tickets to at least one of the performances of Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker (even if they are playing Brahms) because who knows if you'll ever get the chance again.
1. What: Yuja Wang plays Shostakovitch, MTT conducts Stravinsky.
Why: There are two subscriptions series this season featuring the powerhouse aka Yuja Wang. Choose this one because of MTT's choices on the program, not Yuja's -- he's far more invested in the music of Stravinsky than the Bruckner on the other series. Plus, also on this program is the premiere of Bright Sheng's "Overture" to his opera Dream of the Red Chamber, which will be playing across the street at the War Memorial Opera House, thus allowing you to familiarize yourself with the music's tone ahead of time.
When: September 28 - October 1.
2. What: Mahler's Das klagende Lied, semi staged.
Why: Recent years have seen these semi-staged productions grow into a steady stream of season highlights, and everything is in place for this production to match past successes -- a very solid cast featuring Sasha Cooke, Joelle Harvey, and Brian Mulligan as well as the production/design team of Adam Larsen and James Darragh. Add MTT's passion for Mahler's music, the magnificent SFS Chorus, and two additional pieces on the program (Blumine, Songs of a Wayfarer) that are among the most gorgeous of the composer's works, and it looks pretty promising.
When: January 13 - 15.
3. What: Blomstedt conducts Beethoven's 9th.
Why: Somewhat incredibly, the artistic rewards of the Conductor Laureate's annual two-week visits grow stronger every year, with the warmth between him and the orchestra permeating every inch of the hall. The only conductor besides Blomstedt I'd rather hear conduct this piece at this point in time is Salonen. Just go.
When: February 1 - 5.
4. What: John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary.
Why: Adams' feminist cantata (with a libretto by Peter Sellars) is one of the most heralded works of classical music to emerge in the past couple of years. Joana Carneiro, Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony conducts the orchestra, The SFS Chorus and a solid cast are also on hand for what will be one of the most anticipated programs of the Bay Area performing arts season.
When: February 16 - 18.
5. What: Leila Josefowicz as soloist in John Adams' Scheherazade.2 Violin Concerto.
Why: Rivaling The Gospel According to the Other Mary for acclaim is Adams' other recent major work, his violin concerto composed for Leila Josefowicz, who is one of the world's most fearless and interesting musicians. Also on the program are selections from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet. MTT conducts.
When: February 22- 25.
6. What: MTT conducts Cage, Holloway, and Bartók.
Why: What's this -- an entire program of music written in the last 80 years? On paper the crowd-pleaser looks like the Cage or Bartok pieces, but Robin Holloway's Europa and the Bull is a Concertante for tuba & orchestra. The composer states the tuba role is "priapic, magnificent, irresistible" and describes the last four (of seven) sections of the as: "[section] IV - Quasi una Cadenza, wherein the soloist/bull/God bellows and heaves into his fulfillment. This is followed by a rapid subsidence into [section] V, a pastorale reprise: aggression appeased, tenderness is still more eloquent (on just the same material) in post-coital comfort than when wooing. In [section] VI - Vista, Europa, too, acquiesces in and embraces her destiny: the once-furious Bull now metamorphoses into the Woman herself. Finally VII - Vista is a solemn hymnic apotheosis of the fruitful terrain born of the enforced conjunction: Europe shimmers into a futurity glowing with Hope." Performed by a tuba. How can one possibly not want to hear this? The Symphony's own Jeff Anderson will play the part of the Bull.
When: March 23 - 24.
7. What: MTT conducts Mahler's 1st Symphony.
Why: Last season MTT led the orchestra in what were widely described as devastating and powerful performances of Mahler's 2nd. I sat that out due to Mahler/MTT fatigue and regretted it. Fool me once... besides, the 1st Symphony is among Mahler's most interesting.
When: March 30 - April 2.
8. What: Murray Perahia in recital.
Why: If you're under 65 years old, there's a good chance you've never heard of Perahia, much less seen him perform, which is a damn shame. He plays with a combination of dexterity, grace, and fury, and no one plays quite like him. In fact, the only pianist I would get more excited about seeing perform live is Martha Argerich.
When: April 25.
9. What: Susanna Mälkki conducts The Rite of Spring.
Why: The Symphony lost a real opportunity by not making some kind of offer to secure Mälkki's services in the future, allowing the LA Phil to swoop in and name her Principal Guest Conductor. Her now annual appearances here have been marked by excellence on every level. She conducts the Stravinsky classic along with the composer's Scherzo fantastique. Also on the program is local treasure Garrick Ohlsson, a pianist with great emotional depth performing the first Beethoven concerto.
When: June 9 - 11.
10. What: MTT conducts American Mavericks.
Why: The penultimate program of the season finds MTT in one of his strongholds with the music of Charles Ives and Lou Harrison. He's also putting the West Coast premiere of one of his own pieces on the program, but the highlight should be George Antheil's all-too-brief Jazz Symphony, a work that was hated by critics when it was first heard 90 years ago, but I'd prefer it over Brahms almost any time.
When: June 23 - 25.
If you liked this, like A Beast in a Jungle on Facebook for more. Top photo of Susanna Mälkki by Rio Gandara/Helsingen Sanomat.