Many San Francisco Symphony concertgoers are aware that a few years ago we started a project called SoundBox. SoundBox is a space where we program new and unusual music, and where we also experiment with enhanced lighting, projections, and video. Unusual contributions by actors, dancers, and other performance artists are also involved. This concert expands the SoundBox aesthetic into Davies Symphony Hall’s large space.
From the Steeples and the Mountains 1906 | 4 mins
The Unanswered Question 1908 | 6 mins
A number of pieces on this program involve space in a unique way. One is From the Steeples and the Mountains, scored for the sort of bells found in giant church steeples and a brass choir. The other is The Unanswered Question, written for very distant strings with a few other instruments scattered around the hall. This piece is one of the quietest ever written, and one of the most profound, evocative works of the twentieth century.—MTT
LISTEN FOR: From the Steeples and the Mountains—In this experimental piece, the musical forces are divided into two unconnected “teams” that also overlap. The brass contingent (trumpets and trombones) build on a melody reminiscent of “Taps.” Against this we hear four sets of church bells, which play descending octave scales over and over. The Unanswered Question—Ives offered some clues in interpreting this sound experience: The strings, playing extremely quietly, represent “The Silences of the Druids—Who Know, See, and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet intones “The Perennial Question of Existence.” The search for “The Invisible Answer” is undertaken ever more desperately by woodwinds. At the end the trumpet intones the question one last time as the strings play on serenely.—J.Y.
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS
Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind 2016 | 32 mins
The musical ideas for Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind first sprang into my mind in 1976. The American Bicentennial was producing a great many sprawling self-congratulatory pieces. I remembered Carl Sandburg's acerbic poem from his early collection Smoke and Steel and thought its honky-tonk “Ozymandias” kind of message might be a cautionary contrast to all the celebratory hullabaloo. The startling mixture of styles was right there from the beginning and a few times I even sang it as an improvisation at parties around LA. It fit in with the big concept album pieces that were still being created at the time. The ideas got noted down in sketchbook and were there until around 2003 when during a summer in Santa Fe I brought the ideas further forward into a kind of short score form. Then in 2015-16 I brought it the rest of the way into a piece for solo soprano, backup singers, bar band, and chamber orchestra. The piece still has the shape of a big concept album track but also shapes you find in classical sonatas like double expositions and developments. A number of big themes careen back and forth between different styles and the different groups that play them. I wanted the piece to have an evocation of antiquity but also of the crazy energy of the party that precedes the end of civilization; whatever civilization that happens to be.—MTT
DID YOU KNOW? This piece is inspired by the music making of Sarah Vaughan, Leontyne Price, James Brown, and Igor Stravinsky—all artists I had the privilege of knowing. The demands on the lead singer are great and Measha Brueggergosman's extraordinary vocal diversity has allowed this piece to come alive in the way it has.—MTT
from Suite for Violin and American Gamelan 1974 | 20 mins
We played this beautiful piece by Lou Harrison—one of our most treasured Bay Area composers—at SoundBox earlier this season. Lou wrote it for violin and American gamelan—an extraordinary set of instruments that he and his partner Bill Colvig invented and built. It is a melodic, haunting piece and one of my all-time favorites. I use the piece to inspire me when I’m on a hike and I’ve got one more ridge to accomplish and I’m not sure how I’m going to make it. When this tune comes into my mind, I always make it up the hill!—MTT
DID YOU KNOW? In the early 1970s, Lou and his collaborator, violinist Richard Dee, accepted a commission from the San Francisco Chamber Music Society for this Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. Lou remarked, “I always enjoyed working with other composers. . ..Co-op composition is fun if the rules are set up and nobody cheats.”—J.Y.
A Jazz Symphony 1925 | 12 mins
I have always admired Antheil's A Jazz Symphony, with its crazy mixtures of jazz, primitivism, futurism, and naive sentimentality. The piece was written just before talking pictures existed, but it has always suggested to me the scenario of a melodramatic two-reeler of the time. One day I wrote a shooting script for such a film. It tells the story of a night in a Parisian nightclub of the 1920s in which two dancers—one modeled on Zelda Fitzgerald, the other Josephine Baker—vie for the attentions of the audience and the musicians. The story is played out in music, dance, film, and projection, and evokes such themes as silent film melodramas, show biz production, warmongering technology, and analytical cubism. As a theater piece it explores a territory between live performance and film. It was created in collaboration with legendary choreographer/director Patricia Birch, New World Symphony video artist Clyde Scott, and lighting designer Luke Kritzeck—MTT
DID YOU KNOW? A Jazz Symphony carries the heading “Americana for Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, Paris, 1925.” Whiteman was a violist in the San Francisco Symphony before becoming a hugely famous figure of American music!—J.Y.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.