After a stunning Gala Opening on September 3, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony show that they intend to carry on the new season in just as spectacular a fashion. This weekend Davies Symphony Hall will ring once more to the sound of some great American masterpieces.
The concert features the Barber Violin Concerto, with soloist James Ehnes, the riotous Antheil Jazz Symphony, and Gershwin’s hugely popular tone poem, An American in Paris - and if the reception given to the Antheil and Gershwin works at Tuesday’s concert are anything to go by, this weekend’s fare looks to be unmissable.
The opening work is by Charles Ives, a piece known as The Alcotts, from A Concord Symphony. The work was originally composed by Ives as his Sonata No 2 for Piano, subtitled Concord, Mass., 1840-60, and orchestrated by Henry Brant, who said: “In choosing the Concord Sonata for orchestral treatment I felt, above all, that here Ives had achieved his most complete and comprehensive expression, and that of all his works, this was the one with the most immediate audience appeal. . . .”.
The work was premiered on June 16, 1995, in Ottawa, with Brant conducting the National Arts Centre Orchestra. The US premiere took place at Carnegie Hall on February 25, 1996, at which Brant conducted the American Composers Orchestra. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the first SFS performances in February 2010.
Samuel Barber began writing his Violin Concerto in Switzerland, during the summer of 1939. He continued working on it in Paris, but the concerto wasn’t completed until he returned to the United States - finally completing it in Philadelphia in July 1940. Barber did, however, make some revisions to the work in 1948, and it’s the revised version which has been performed since then.
The concerto was commissioned by a wealthy merchant, Samuel Fels, for his adopted son, Iso Briselli. Briselli, however, wasn’t happy with the third movement, and he didn’t ever perform the work. There seems to have been a lack of clarity about whether he considered the finale too difficult or whether he simply wasn’t happy with it. The latter explanation was the one that Briselli put forward some 43 years later, saying that he’d found it “too lightweight”.
Whatever the actuality, Barber wasn’t about to abandon his concerto, so he offered it to Albert Spalding - a well respected player - whose performance of the work was very well received, and for which the composer won much acclaim. Albert Spalding was the first violinist to play the concerto at SFS subscription concerts, in January 1943, under the baton of Pierre Monteux. The most recent performances with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony were given by Joshua Bell in September 2002.
Davies Symphony Hall last welcomed Canadian violinist, James Ehnes, in January this year.
During his 2013-14 season, he'll be appearing with the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Montreal Symphony and Toronto Symphony, he has a three-week residency in Melbourne lined up, and also performances in London, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Brussels, Prague, Tel Aviv and Moscow. Additionally, he will tour with his own string ensemble, the Ehnes Quartet, and lead the winter and summer festivals of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, where he is Artistic Director.
Recent recordings by James Ehnes include concertos by Britten and Shostakovich, the music of Bartók, and Tchaikovsky’s complete works for violin. Forthcoming releases include Prokofiev’s complete violin works, Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto and the Shostakovich String Quartets Nos 7 and 8. He has received a number of international awards and prizes for his recordings, including a Grammy®, a Gramophone Award, and seven Juno awards. Mr Ehnes plays the ‘Ex Marsick’ Stradivarius of 1715, on extended loan from the Fulton Collection.
American composer, George Antheil, began his professional career in Europe, where - during the 1920s - he became part of the Parisian avant garde, numbering among his friends the likes of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway, Eric Satie and Igor Stravinsky.
Antheil considered himself quite revolutionary as a young composer, his music incorporating a number of unusual sounds and combinations of instruments, and his concerts frequently caused riots across Europe - a sign of genius at the time. He wrote over 300 works, including symphonies, chamber works, and music for films and operas. Outspoken and articulate, he was also the author of numerous articles, and wrote an autobiography entitled Bad Boy of Music.
Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony was composed in Paris in 1925, and premiered on April 10, 1927, at Carnegie Hall in New York. Allie Ross conducted W C Handy’s Orchestra, with Antheil himself as piano soloist. He published a revised and shortened version of the work in 1955, but for this weekend's performance, the San Francisco Symphony uses the original score.
It was in 1926, during a visit to Paris, that George Gershwin found the inspiration for what he described as ‘a rhapsodic ballet’ - a tone poem about Paris as seen through the eyes of an American visitor. Two years would pass before he completed the work, on a return visit to Paris, and from there, things for An American in Paris moved rapidly - the piano sketch was done by August, the orchestration by mid-November, and four weeks later Walter Damrosch conducted the premiere at Carnegie Hall.
“The opening part,” said Gershwin, “will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and the Six, though the themes are all original.” He later explained that he’d not tried to represent any definite scenes in the work, but would leave it to the individual listener to read into the music whatever his imagination would conjure up.
An American in Paris was first performed by the San Francisco Symphony in July 1931, with Artur Rodzinski conducting, and the most recent subscription concert performances were led by Michael Tilson Thomas in September 2004.
MTT conducts American Materpieces at Davies Symphony Hall on Friday and Saturday, September 6 and 7. For further information and tickets, please visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
The late Michael Steinberg, former Program Annotator for the San Francisco Symphony
About George Antheil