REVIEW: San Fran Symphony

Photo Courtesy of UMS
Photo Courtesy of University Musical Society

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra took a residency in Ann Arbor this weekend, with two performances at Hill Auditorium and numerous master classes being given around town (Gil Shaham’s violin master class being one of them). This artistic residency would not be possible without the help of the University Musical Society, which coordinates functions such as these several times a season.

Michael Tilson Thomas received great applause as he first stepped on the stage at Hill this Thursday, raising his baton before a close-to-capacity crowd. With no hesitation, he gave a downbeat to start the nocturnal stroll in the park that is Mahler’s seventh. The SFSO played at a very high level, albeit with some faults that only the musically inclined would have caught. Michael Tilson Thomas, however, put on a show. From stomping his foot at the apex of the fourth movement to his fluid body movements in the andante portion of the work, MTT was definitely a sight to see. It must be noted, as well, that MTT is known for playing Mahler well, and Thursday’s performance was a testament to that notion.

Something must also be said about the choice to play Mahler’s seventh in a college town such as Ann Arbor. Mahler was the product of the late German romantic period, meaning that his works (along with Bruckner and late Brahms) involved some form of intricacy and musical abstractionism that only veterans of the symphony could appreciate. Now, the brand of the SFSO definitely attracted a lot of patrons to Hill, but the ambient-nocturnal nature of the particular piece was not captivating enough for much of the student body. The students that were in attendance, however, were either symphony fans or die-hard Mahler fans. Fortunately, the author is both.

Discrepancies aside, the SFSO played a wonderful show Thursday night. From what I heard, Friday night was also a spectacular performance (they played Mephisto Waltz!). The SFSO received grand standing ovations both nights, and have been very well received throughout their residency here in Ann Arbor.

PREVIEW: San Fran Symphony

A young Michael Tilson Thomas. He turns 70 this week.
A young Michael Tilson Thomas. He turns 70 this week.

Who: The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas

What: Mahler’s Symphony No.7

Where: Hill Auditorium

When: Thursday, November 13th, 7:30 (alternate program on November 14 click here for details)

Price: $14-$85

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra will be in Ann Arbor on the 13th and 14th, bringing the great Mahler’s 7th Symphony along with them. The SFSO is constantly regarded as one of the finest orchestras on the world circuit, and seeing them here at Hill Auditorium is nothing short of a treat.

Mahler’s 7th was written in 1904-05 and marks the composer’s return to his ‘progressive tonality.’ The symphony is roughly 80 minutes in length and is sometimes referred to as Lied der Nacht (lit. Song of the Night) due to its evocation of Nocturnal themes.

REVIEW: Listen Closely: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and the Past, Present and Future of Classical Music

“Magical” would not be too strong a word for this event. Knowing that Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was written during the final years of the composer’s life, I had a preconceived idea that I would be spending the better part of two hours listening to a portentous, reaper-haunted piece—which would still have been enjoyable, in its own way. Instead, I found myself listening to a joyous, yet mature and meditative musical celebration of life. I don’t think I could have picked a better piece of music to listen to for my first symphonic concert.

This symphony doesn’t open with a bang but with a whisper; to hear all the various instruments of the San Francisco Symphony quietly emerge out of the silence during the first few minutes was both exhilarating and relaxing at the same time. I was sitting in the balcony, but the incredible sound of Hill Auditorium made every single noise audible with incredible clarity. When the strings floated a high pianissimo note, it sounded like they were sitting only a few feet in front of me; when the brass blasted a powerful fortissimo chord, I felt as though I had fallen into a tuba.

A symphony is an unusual kind of artwork: through the voices of many instruments, one person speaks. Mahler once said that he only composed because he could not express his experiences in words. Of course, the difficulty with an abstract art form like music is that sometimes it is hard to tell exactly what the composer is trying to say. During the first movement, I sometimes found myself concentrating very intensely on the meaning of the piece—“what is Mahler trying to SAY with this melody? WHY did the key change so suddenly?”—but eventually, my left brain settled down and I allowed myself to engage with the music on a less cerebral level.

Naturally, after the final notes of the first movement died away, there was no applause between movements. I understand the reasoning behind this solemn decree: a symphony is a continuous work of art that is meant to be listened to in its entirety, and to applaud between movements would disrupt the continuity of the piece. Basically, clapping between movements “breaks the spell.” Still, at all the operas I’ve attended, people applauded at the end of arias and acts, yet no one would argue that an opera isn’t a continuous work of art. At this concert, instead of applause after every section, I heard the sounds of squeaking seats, fortissimo coughs and tuning violinists, which I thought somewhat distracting as well. Still, maybe keeping all that applause pent up inside was for the best—after the concert finished, the applause went on for so long that conductor Michael Tilson Thomas had to take approximately thirty-seven bows (I’m guesstimating here) before the audience had finished.

The second movement was in the form of a ländler, a type of Austrian folk dance that Mahler would have undoubtedly heard as a kid, growing up as the son of a brewer in a small Austrian village. I loved the numerous instrumental trills during this section, suggesting the yodeling that apparently sometimes accompanies ländler dancing. One of the things that was so cool about this section was how Mahler took what some might consider to be a frivolous dance tune and integrated it into a supposedly “highbrow” classical composition without a second thought. It’s a terrific little mashup that reveals the imaginary line between “classical” music and “pop” music to be very thin—or nonexistent.

The third movement was significantly more aggressive and edgy, with multiple discords piling on top of each other. The mounting tension was briefly broken by a beautiful trumpet melody, before the reverie was shattered by another cavalcade of pointed dissonances and irregular rhythms. This particular movement demonstrated perfectly that classical music can contain astounding noise as well as refined melody. When one looks up “classical music” on YouTube, the first page or so of results is invariably a bunch of videos with titles along the lines of “Relaxing Chillout CLASSICAL MUSIC For Study And Sleep.” I can’t help but think of some hapless student vainly trying to cram for midterms with this feverish and unpredictable piece of music blaring in the background.

The final movement sounded like a slowly-fading farewell from another time. As the strings repeated the final melody over and over again, it also seemed to evoke an unearthly feeling of permanence and contentment. Doing a bit of research on Mahler after the concert, I learned that while he was writing his Ninth Symphony, Mahler was living comfortably in Gilded-Age New York City, having just accepted a job as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. It was a rare time of satisfaction and comfort for the man who once described himself as “always an intruder, never welcomed.” Only a couple of years after the posthumous premiere of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the Archduke of Mahler’s homeland would be assassinated, starting a war that would shatter the era of relative peace and prosperity in which Mahler spent his final days. In the aftermath of the Great War, a new American style of music would begin to gain popularity in a way that rivaled the European classical tradition. With its emphasis on spontaneous improvisation, danceable rhythms, and individual expression, jazz seemed to redefine what music could be—or maybe it was a throwback to the days when Renaissance court musicians would throw a band of random musicians together to play for royal dances, embellishing on the melodies and improvising entire solos off the top of their heads. Nevertheless, while many fantastic new genres of music flourished during the twentieth century, classical music started to get pushed to the side, slowly fading out of earshot like the final endless chords of this symphony. If you listen closely, it’s still playing; you just have to listen a lot harder nowadays.

I got into classical music a couple of years ago. When I first started delving into the history of this music and reading articles about the financial misfortunes that are afflicting orchestras and composers across the world, I started to fear that I had arrived about a century too late. On that Saturday night, however, I looked around at the spectacle of a sold-out Hill Auditorium, full of everybody from casual music lovers to aspiring composers from the School of Music, and the serene contentment of the Ninth overcame me. As long as there are people out there who still believe that they can express themselves through the symphony orchestra—this strange, impractical, arbitrary hodgepodge of oboes, trombones, violas and other assorted instruments—there will be an audience for this music.

And now, I would like to ask a humble favor. Since you’ve read through this colossally overwritten half-review-half-essay in its entirety, you clearly have a lot of time on your hands. If you could please take a few seconds out of your day to write something about music in the comments below, it would be so awesome. It can be an anecdote about the role music plays in your life, a fun fact about Hector Berlioz, a story about that one time you met André 3000, another review of the same concert I just reviewed, a treatise on the sociopolitical ramifications of the MP3—anything at all. [art]seen exists to promote discussion about cultural events on campus, yet too often it seems as though we [art]seen bloggers are writing in a vacuum, with no feedback from our fellow students. All it takes to get a conversation started is one comment. Thanks for reading!

Review: ChristianTetzlaff and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

San Francisco Symphony- March 19,2010

They say each symphony orchestra is different than the other in many many ways. Until now, I was really into learning the basics that this concept escaped me. But when I saw the San Francisco Symphony in action, I finally got what they meant. The difference was not only in the arrangements, the music they chose but also in the way they performed as one. They were a more contained unit.

The program started with a piece called “Post-scriptum” by contemporary composer Kissine. No offense, but I didn’t like it. It had this dreading , urgent tone that was disturbing and annoying-a smorgasbord of notes (often jarring and out of place)- no rest for the musician, no rest for the listener. There was definitely an innovative use of the sounds of the entire orchestra. But the piece was abstract and felt purposeless, always aiming towards the dramatic, as if pandering to today’s love for things “abstract”. My frustration sprang from the fact that I couldn’t connect with it at all. There were “bravos” when the piece ended, to my surprise.

Intrigued by this, during the intermission, when I asked a couple of people if they liked it, one (an older person) said that it was uncomfortable and screechy) and the other (younger one)  said that she had liked it for the novelty in the tempo and musical arrangement.  So I guess there was a divided house, based on my pathetic sample size. <Shrug>.

But then the second piece, a definitely classic composition by Tchaikovsky, “Violin Concerto in D Major”  just gave me my ticket’s worth . Listening to the violin solo  felt like stepping out onto the fresh, dew-kissed grass while the smell of the earth lingers in the air after the first rain of spring. Christian Tetzlaff has  perfect technique and when he plays the high notes, especially in the recurrent melody in this piece, you can’t help but bow to his bow.

The brilliant Christian Tetzlaff
The brilliant Christian Tetzlaff. Master of the bow!

This piece touched so many moods but there was no despair of non-comprehension at the end, like the first one. The compelling beauty of the violin was hard to resist. Mr. Tetzlaff  totally owned the piece.

Ravel’s piece was interesting but didn’t leave me that impressed as his other works before. The Liszt work of “lament and triumph” was intriguing and sad. In this piece, I thought that the use of the trumpets and horns as ‘highlighters” in order to emphasize a musical sequence of importance was neat. It started off  on a gloomy note but grew on me.

Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas

Mr.Thomas breezed through these tough compositions and everything was executed so well. I think that kind of clockwork precision comes only with amazing natural talent as well as years of practice and hardwork. Overall, it was a great show.

That night, the triangle was used maybe seven times at the max. On my way back, I was wondering what the musician who played the triangle must feel. Maybe  it is pure discipline. Maybe it is the fact that they know that they are contributing, even though it is a small role. ” They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Krithika, for [art]seen

Preview: San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Today!

What beautiful weather we have been having! No longer does the sun disassociate its  twin functions of producing heat and light and to feel the lovely sunshine while you lay under the cerulean blue skies -it just makes you feel so alive!

Well , you can experience that same feeling of warmth and joy when you come to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra performance under the direction of  the highly renowned Michael Tilson Thomas tonight. The performance will also feature Christian Tetzlaff, a violinist who is claimed to be the most important violinists in our times for his perfect technique and musical perception . Do I see you raising your eyebrows with disbelief? Then listen to this!

Christian Tetzlaff – Bach Sonata No. 3 (III. Largo)– Courtesy,

Tonight’s program features works of Kissine, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Liszt- all masters with such distinct signatures.


San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Christian Tetzlaff, violin

When: Friday, March 19, 8 pm
Where: Hill Auditorium

Tickets at Box Office  before the show or the Michigan League Ticket Office.

Come bask in the Hill Auditorium as the lovely notes of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra lift you to your heaven!

For [art]seen,