For many the Opening Night Gala of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) is all about launching a new season with an abundance of festivities, from the opulent wining and dining prior to the concert itself to the elegant block party (with dancing added to the wining and dining) that follows the final bows. For those more interested in the music, however, Opening Night involves a return to all the wonderful sounds that come from SFS and the impressive diversity of repertoire from which those sounds emerge. Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) made sure that those of us on audience side received a stunning introduction to the sonorities of a new season.
He made the bold move of opening the program with George Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony,” composed in 1925. “Bold” may actually be a bit of an understatement, since Antheil would later title his autobiography (which he wrote when he was only 45) Bad Boy of Music. At a time when other Americans were going to Paris to learn how to compose “American music” from Nadia Boulanger, Antheil was rubbing shoulders with the Dadaists, less concerned with cultivating an “American voice” and having more fun finding ways to “épater le bourgeois” (shock the middle class).
True to Dadaist absurdity, “A Jazz Symphony” is far from a symphony in just about any sense of the word; and it is just about as remote from jazz as it was being practiced in the Twenties. One might almost call it a rebellion (achieved through considerable nose-thumbing) against George Gershwin’s effort (in conjunction with Paul Whiteman) to make jazz “respectable” by bringing it into the concert hall with “Rhapsody in Blue.” In the spirit of the abstract movement in painting, “A Jazz Symphony” abstracts out all of the raucous qualities of go-for-broke jamming and recasts them in a panorama of eccentric rhythms, ostinatos that persist long enough to try anyone’s patience, and the outrageous dissonances of playing too many things at once. It is, as jazz aficionados used to say, a real gas.
Last night MTT sought to revel in all of the brash qualities that give “A Jazz Symphony” its primal identity; and SFS was with him for his every step along this undertaking. Taking less than a quarter of an hour, the performance blended together the wildest qualities of a Harlem rent party with those of a stomach-churning roller-coaster ride. Much of this was the “structured chaos” of the ensemble work; but Mark Inouye stood out with a few wild trumpet riffs, while Robin Sutherland indulged in some “lounge lizard” keyboard work (backed by two other pianists). This was one hell of a way to launch the season.
Actually, there was an amusing preview of what would come at the very beginning of the evening. As is always the case on Opening Night, the program was preceded by the singing of the National Anthem. MTT is particularly good at dropping down the dynamics for “the rockets’ red glare,” sparing everyone from straining the upper register at excessive volume. Last night, in that more hushed setting, one discovered that the glockenspiel was improvising some really wild riffs. This was an amusing reminder that, first, bebop is still with us and, second, a glockenspiel can play bebop as well as any other instrument. “Klinget, Glöckchen, klinget!”
Those brash qualities that opened the evening were perfectly matched by the final selection, Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” Gershwin visited Paris shortly after the premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue.” He went with an almost religious worship of French modernism. He thought he would study composition while in Paris, but he was turned down by both Boulanger and Maurice Ravel. Perhaps the best thing to come out of the trip was his personal friendship with Ravel, who is purported to have asked him, “Why do you want to become a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?”
In some respects, then, one may listen to “An American in Paris” as a testament by that “first-rate Gershwin” finding and accepting his true identity. The music is basically a tone poem whose narrative covers a broad spectrum of moods from a jaunty promenade to sentimental home sickness. In the midst of all that diversity, however, the music is all Gershwin, reveling as much in the joyousness of the American Musical Theater as in the formality of the concert hall. Here, again, Inouye dazzled with some first-rate trumpet work, while Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik captured the more sentimental moods with his violin solos. What mattered most, however, was the full ensemble sound; and MTT endowed this music with the full personal intensity of Gershwin’s spirit.
Sadly, the music between these two “bookends” was far less satisfying. The remainder of the program was devoted to songs from the American Musical Theater repertoire. Once again, MTT led SFS to set just the right mood for each of the songs; but vocalist Audra McDonald’s sweet, but otherwise featureless, tone never really registered with any of the selections. While there was a generous share of Leonard Bernstein, it was clear that McDonald was never particularly comfortable with his proclivity for wide intervallic leaps, nor could she master the delicate counterpoint of a solo voice weaving between instrumental solos for violin (Barantschik) and cello (Michael Grebanier) at the beginning of “Somewhere.” Furthermore, she never seemed to get at the sense of drama behind her words, particularly when the words of Betty Comdon and Adolph Green demanded that the delivery of a stand-up comic be rendered through a singing voice.
Nevertheless, the festive atmosphere prevailed. The audience was appreciative and frequently enthusiastic. However, it was MTT’s blend of Antheil and Gershwin that encouraged the more serious listeners that another great season was already brewing.