Hearne, Barber, and Tchaikovsky at SF Symphony

Last Friday Dave and I went to Davies Symphony Hall to hear the San Francisco Symphony play a new work by Ted Hearne called Dispatches, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 6, Pathétique. A young composer named Christian Reif conducted the Hearne piece, and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the other two.

Dispatches is scored for a large orchestra including lots of unusual percussion (including various kinds of drums and cymbals, glockenspiel, ratchet, Thai gongs, marimba, xylophone, wood blocks, and — according to the program — a “set of kitchen knives”) as well as electric guitar and electric bass. The music was full of interesting and unexpected sound combinations, but I found it hard to detect much structure running through it. I’m sure it was there, but it seemed to me to be obscured rather than made clearer by the controlled chaos of the orchestration. It was rather like listening to a kid with a brand new box of 64 musical crayons who was determined to use all of them in one picture.

Knoxville was beautifully played and sung. The soprano, Susanna Phillips, has a beautiful, rich voice, but she could have been singing in Hawaiian for all the consonants I could make out, and while the text (words by James Agee) was printed in the program, the house lights were brought down nearly all the way so that it wasn’t possible to follow along. You could appreciate the wonderful music during the performance, and then appreciate the wonderful text afterward during intermission, but you couldn’t appreciate both together at the same time. So that was a shame. Still, beautifully played and sung.

The program ended with a terrific performance of the Pathétique. It’s a very familiar work, but MTT nevertheless found some ear-opening new aspects to bring out. He played down the romantic side of it; I don’t think I’ve ever heard the first movement played so bleakly, so that even the Big Theme sounded like something out of Sibelius. I have heard the big march in the third movement played as sincerely triumphant, as ironic, as desperate, but I think this was the first time I’ve heard it sound angry and rigidly defiant.

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