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SFS celebrates Gordon Getty’s 80th birthday with a gala concert

Guest of honor Gordon Getty and guest performer Plácido Domingo
Guest of honor Gordon Getty and guest performer Plácido Domingo
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Composer Gordon Getty was born on December 20, 1933; and his 80th birthday party was a major event for the society pages, covered in all of its opulence by the San Francisco Chronicle. However, that social event of the year gave little attention to Getty’s love of music and his efforts as a composer. The responsibility for recognizing that side of his personality fell to the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), an institution that has benefitted significantly from Getty philanthropy, and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). The result was a concert called A Salute & Birthday Party for Gordon Getty, held last night at Davies Symphony Hall.

Over the course of the evening, SFS was led by both MTT and Plácido Domingo; and the SFS Chorus was conducted by their Director, Ragnar Bohlin. As might be guessed, Domingo was also there to sing in his now-baritone voice; and he was joined by his former operatic colleague, mezzo Frederica von Stade. The program featured a sampling of Getty’s compositions, including his setting of four songs by Emily Dickinson performed by soprano Lisa Delan (whose experience with Getty’s music is extensive), accompanied by pianist Robin Sutherland. Getty was out there in the audience with the rest of us for this occasion, although his place was marked by a spotlight; and he seemed to relish the entire evening with his characteristic gusto.

For my part I have to begin with my own enthusiastic shout-out for Domingo’s work as a conductor. He led only one piece, the overture to the operetta Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, Jr. I have to confess a personal stake in this event, since my very first exposure to Domingo’s conducting was a video of a New Year’s performance of Fledermaus at Covent Garden, meaning that this particular overture marked the first time I saw him wielding a baton.

This is one of those overtures that nicely outlines a generous share of what is to happen as the narrative unfolds. With its high spirits and sumptuous waltz sequences, it is the perfect vehicle of anticipation for those who know the operetta and an engagingly charming promise of things to come for those who don’t. Domingo clearly understood the dramatic elements behind each theme; and they all contributed to his expressively fluid (not quite a euphemism for schmaltzy) approach the Strauss’ rhythms, particularly in the waltzes.

That dramatic expressiveness was equally evident in his account of “Di Provenza il mar” (the sea of Provence) from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. How many of us remember when his role in that opera required him to listen to that aria? Perhaps because of his sympathetic understanding of the role of the son, his approach to the father’s aria was more poignant than one encounters among those occupied only with the sterner side of the elder’s character. That Domingo could put so much into this short aria, particularly with only a short break after his conducting duties, was a testimony to his consummate musicianship and technique.

That break was provided by von Stade singing Gustav Mahler’s setting of Friedrich Rückert’s “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” (don’t look into my songs). Drawing upon his expertise, MTT came up with one of the few Mahler songs that can be called unabashedly cheerful. The instrumental setting is relatively modest and almost unobtrusive, leaving things almost entirely to von Stade to convey the high spirits of the music; and her interpretation was absolutely delightful.

After these two solos, it was inevitable that these two luminaries come together for a duet. This was “Bei jedem Walzerschritt” (with every waltzing step), from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow. This is the duet that provides the theme for what is best known as the “Merry Widow Waltz;” and it also provided Domingo with the opportunity to exercise yet another talent, that of dancer. At this point the schmaltz was definitely in generous supply, and the effect could not have been more captivating.

Getty’s own contributions for the occasion were somewhat mixed. The best came in three of the movements from his Ancestor Suite, a musical reflection on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The outer movements were both dances, the “Waltz of the Ancestors” and a madcap (and ankle-twisting) polka. The real highlight, however, came in the middle movement, “Ewig du” (forever you). Getty has a keen ear for instrumentation; and this movement involves interplay between a string quartet of first-chair players and the rest of the ensemble. While the dances were frequently characterized by over-the-top combinations of instrumental sonorities, “Ewig du” emerged as the most heartfelt expression of the characters involved in Poe’s tale.

Unfortunately, that expressiveness never really emerged when Getty was working with text. Neither the four Dickinson poems nor “A Prayer for My Daughter,” by W. B. Yeats, sung by the SFS Chorus with MTT conducting SFS, emerged with literary qualities realized through musical interpretation. The Dickinson performance was weakened by the lack of clarity in Delan’s diction; but it seemed as if, where both authors were concerned, Getty’s head was down there in the words, never quite getting in touch with the rich interplay of semantics and rhetoric behind those words.

Less satisfying, however, was the SFS Chorus account of Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in alium” (hope in another). This is music more talked about (as in Fifty Shades of Grey) than performed, probably because it was composed in 40 separate parts, divided across eight five-part choirs. Last night the Chorus was properly spaced and separated across the Terrace seating; but, even with physical separation, the performance was disappointingly muddled. It would be reasonable to guess that Tallis never intended this music for such a large resource and probably would have preferred a single voice on each of the 40 parts (and with the choirs physically separated). This selection was included on the program to indicate the breadth of Getty’s musical interests, but it turned out to be the one composition that felt disappointingly out of place in the course of the evening.

MTT framed the entire evening with orchestral performances. The festivities were concluded with a “rip-snorting” (his words) account of the Allegro con brio (fourth) movement from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 92 symphony in A major, the seventh which will be featured during this week’s run of subscription concerts beginning tomorrow night. True to his word, MTT delivered a reading that was equally generous with the “allegro” and the “brio.” He began the program with similar gusto in a performance of the “Cortège de Bacchus” from Léo Delibes’ Sylvia ballet, best appreciated for the generous attention Delibes gave to the brass section and the outstanding technique with which the SFS brass merited that attention.

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