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Personal anticipations for the 2014–15 San Francisco Symphony season

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, soon to celebrate his 20th season with SFS and his 70th birthday
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, soon to celebrate his 20th season with SFS and his 70th birthday
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

This past Tuesday the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) announced their plans for the 2014–15 season. This will be a milestone event in several ways. It will be the twentieth season with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) as Music Director. It will also be the season of MTT’s 70th birthday, and any celebration of MTT himself will be a celebration of the many innovative approaches he has taken to bringing the concert experience into the 21st century.

Needless to say, this will involve an abundance of events. Other media have already been applied to enumerating them in their entirety, and I do not wish to reproduce those efforts. Since this is a Web based publication, it is sufficient to observe that there is now a 2014–15 Season Highlights Web page, which includes an interactive digital version of the subscription brochure that gets sent out as physical mail. In addition, the Calendar Web site has now updated to include the months from September of 2014 to July of 2015. With all of that information now so readily available to anyone reading this from the screen, I would now like to offer a personalized view of those events that have most piqued and/or excited my imagination and my sense of anticipation.

The most general of these will be the launch of Soundbox. This is the name for a new alternative performance space that occupies a generous portion of the backstage area at Davies Symphony Hall. It is also the name for the series of intimate evenings that MTT has planned for presentation in this space, the first of which will be given this coming December. Ten of these events are scheduled for the season, each on a specific theme with one or more curators from the community of composers, musicians, and other artists. Seating will be flexible to accommodate best the presentation requirements for the theme, and bar service will be provided to keep the affair an informal one. The space will also allow for experimentation with both audio and visual technologies and will support a state-of-the-art Meyer Constellation sound system. MTT himself will be curator for the first event, which will provide an acoustic exploration (assisted by the new sound system) of the history of music from plainchant to the present day.

Of the subscription concerts that MTT will be conducting, three stand out as events that I can say with the strongest certainty I have no intention of missing:

  1. For the series of three subscription concerts beginning on October 29, MTT will revisit the performance of Gustav Mahler’s seventh symphony. I have to say that, when I was first learning my Mahler, I found this one on the unwieldy side. If MTT ever felt the same way, he certainly has never shown it. I have heard him conduct it in two previous seasons. Both interpretations made all the sense in the world, and each had its own unique qualities. This symphony now makes a deep impression on me, and I look forward to encountering it again. I was also glad to see that MTT is including it on the programs he has prepared for the national tour that SFS will be making in November.
  2. There will be two concerts on May 14 and 15, respectively, for which the soloist will be the imaginative Dutch violinist Janine Jansen. Jansen founded the annual International Chamber Music Festival in Utrecht in 2003; and she celebrated the Festival’s tenth anniversary with a fascinating release on Decca that coupled Arnold Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” with Franz Schubert’s D. 956 string quintet in C major. Jansen will perform the more “standard” Opus 64 concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn; but I am no less curious about hearing her in performance than I would be if she were playing something more adventurous. As an “overture” for this concerto, MTT has selected the score that John Cage composed for Merce Cunningham’s one-act ballet “The Seasons,” created for the Ballet Society in New York in 1947. This will be complemented at the other end of the program with a performance of the complete score that Igor Stravinsky composed for Leonide Massine’s one-act ballet “Pulcinella.”
  3. An equally fascinating combination of styles will fill the program for the three subscription concerts in Davies that begin on May 20. In this case the “overture” will be the first SFS performances of a new work by Samuel Adams. This will be followed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 364 sinfonia concertante in E-flat major. The soloists will be Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and Principal Viola Jonathan Vinocour. The program will then conclude with Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” a work that can only really be appreciated in a performance setting allowing one to savor the rich diversity of orchestral sonorities.

As usual, the season will also host an impressive array of visiting conductors and other visiting soloists. Five such visits hold particular interest for me:

  1. For the subscription concerts beginning on October 15, Stéphane Denève will return. This time he will be introducing the German violinist Isabelle Faust to Davies Symphony Hall. Faust has already performed as a recitalist for San Francisco Performances, but this will be her SFS debut. She has elected to perform Benjamin Britten’s Opus 15 concerto, and I cannot imagine a more striking way to make a first impression.
  2. Beginning on January 29, Bernard Labadie will return to the Davies podium; and he will come with a program that will balance the operatic and symphonic music of Mozart against secular and sacred compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach.
  3. Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt will return for three concerts beginning on February 19 that will feature a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 45 “German” requiem.
  4. Semyon Bychkov will also be returning, beginning on March 25. He has chosen to conduct Anton Bruckner’s eighth symphony in C minor. This is, by most accounts, the longest of Bruckner’s nine symphonies; and it definitely makes for a full evening’s program. The third (Adagio) movement on its own tends to take up about half an hour; and an entire universe of intense emotion fills that half-hour.
  5. Charles Dutoit will return to conduct two weeks of concerts beginning on May 27. For the first week his soloist will be the cellist Gautier Capuçon, who will be performing Edward Elgar’s Opus 85 concerto in E minor. The highlight of the second week will be the first SFS performance of Maurice Ravel’s one-act farce “L’Heure espagnole” (the Spanish clock).

Finally, pianist András Schiff will return to give two recitals in the Great Performers Series on February 15 and February 22, respectively. Both recitals will focus on the same four composers. This will provide another opportunity to enjoy Mozart and to revisit Schiff’s approach to the late sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. The other two composers will be Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert, providing an imaginative perspective on the maturing of what Charles Rosen called “the classical style.”

As I said, this is an unabashedly personal perspective on the coming season; but it should be sufficient to send readers out to browse the new subscription brochure and/or the many new entries on the Calendar Web site.

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