Performance Wednesday, November 13, 2013 | 8 PM

San Francisco Symphony

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Lauded for their “fresh and daring” (The New York Times) approach to repertoire, the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas come to Carnegie Hall with a program that finds an unexpected dialogue between American works and Viennese classics. Quintessential masterpieces for orchestra by Beethoven and Mozart are juxtaposed with the works of American composers Aaron Copland and Steven Mackey.

The contemporary work on this program is part of My Time, My Music.
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Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a

Beethoven's love for opera was lifelong and not fairly requited. Scheme after scheme on subjects as diverse as Macbeth and the medieval French tale of the fairy Mélusine failed to come to fruition, and the success of the one opera he actually wrote, the work that began as Leonore and came finally to be called Fidelio, arrived slowly and late—and at the cost of immense pain. That Beethoven wrote four overtures for it over the course of a decade tells its own story. These four pieces embody three distinct concepts. Leonore No. 2 (1805) and Leonore No. 3 (1806) are variant executions of the same design, while the Fidelio Overture (1814) is the most different of the bunch. Leonore No. 3 is the most popular as a concert piece.

This is the story of Fidelio: A man called Florestan has been spirited away to prison by a right-wing politician named Don Pizarro. Florestan's whereabouts are not known, and his wife, Leonore, sets out to find him. To make her quest possible, she assumes male disguise and takes the name of Fidelio. She finds her husband and gets a job as assistant to the jailer. Meanwhile, Pizarro gets word of an impending inspection of the prison by a minister from the capital. The presence of the unjustly held Florestan is compromising to Pizarro, who therefore decides to kill him. At the moment of crisis, Leonore reveals her identity and a trumpeter on the prison tower signals the sighting of the minister's carriage.

Leonore No. 3 tells this story. It traces the path from darkly troubled beginnings to an anticipation of the aria in which Florestan—chained, starved, deprived of light—recalls the happy springtime of his life; from there to music of fiery energy and action, interrupted by the trumpet signal (heard, as in the opera, from offstage); and finally to a symphony of victory. Leonore No. 3 is the distillation of the Fidelio idea. It is too strong a piece and too big, even too dramatic, to be an effective introduction for a stage action, something that Beethoven realized almost at once. It does, however, stand as one of the great emblems of the heroic Beethoven, a potent and controlled musical embodiment of a noble humanistic passion.

—Michael Steinberg

Program notes © 2013 San Francisco Symphony

Eating Greens

In the Composer's Own Words

I really like Eating Greens, but I'm not sure whether I should like it. At any rate, for better or worse, in Eating Greens I somehow managed to be myself, despite the grand, somewhat intimidating auspices of the occasion: a Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiere.

The title for Eating Greens was taken from a painting I bought in New Orleans at an African art store in the French Quarter (which makes me sound rather cosmopolitan, doesn't it?).  This was my first purchase of original art. Leafing through a stack of canvases by Margaret Leonard, Eating Greens immediately caught my attention. I really liked it, but remember asking myself if I should like it (sound familiar?). The scene is a three-generational African American family seated at the table for a meal. There is a big iron stove and some shelving in the room, but not much else except wallpaper: giant-strawberry wallpaper, featuring strawberries as big as chairs, connected to vines that threaten to take root in my living room. Each plate at the table has a pile of greens and a piece of what I take to be cornbread. The settings are thoroughly furnished with silverware, yet everyone is eating with their fingers. The colors are shamelessly bright Crayola colors. The perspective is wildly askew in different ways, in different parts of the painting: Kandinsky without the angst. My description sounds like a hodgepodge, yet somehow a distinctive personality emerges which touchingly considers domestic themes: religion, food, and art.

A few months later, I went to a Matisse exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was familiar with Matisse's work through prints and admired the marriage of clear, formal principles and playful spirit, but the originals were a revelation. Up close, you could see the pencil marks intended to guide his cutting in the big cutout works; he continually missed the lines. I imagined him, a grown man, sitting in his studio with a huge pole, pasting construction paper on the wall. In spite of the cultural gulf between Henri Matisse and Margaret Leonard, I see a spiritual similarity between them. I would describe their work as deeply playful.

Speaking of "deeply playful," Thelonious Monk has been an inspiration to me. I am tickled when I hear him stumble through some scale that in someone else's hands would be a cleanly executed, rhetorical gesture. In Monk's hands, it is the stumbling that is important, not the scale. There is a touching but complex irony hearing a sentimental legato ballad strained through Monk's quirky, all-thumbs style. The ballad  takes on a compelling reality, rather than a practiced, artistic, metaphorical form of abstract expression.

If I were having a party to honor the people who, I would hope, would see something of themselves in Eating Greens, I would invite—in addition to Margaret Leonard, Henri Matisse, and Thelonious Monk—Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, and others who are part of a diverse group of musical personalities that make up what I think of as a tradition of American "crackpot inventors." Their music swaggers with a spirit of rugged individualism and shows a healthy irreverence for the European masterpiece syndrome which, as recently as a generation ago, haunted American concert-music composers. I hope the preceding provides a context for the sensibility of Eating Greens.

—Steven Mackey

Program notes © 2013 San Francisco Symphony

Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503

In just less than three years, Mozart wrote 12 piano concertos, a series of masterpieces to delight the mind, charm and seduce the ear, and pierce the heart-the ideal realization of what might be accomplished in the genre. K. 503 is the end of that run.

We listen to K. 503 and note how Mozart's approach to the piano concerto has changed subtly. It seems less operatic than before and more symphonic, imbued with unprecedented compositional richness. This is one of Mozart's big trumpets-and-drums concertos, and the first massive gesture to make its full and grand sonority known. But even so formal an exordium becomes a personal statement in Mozart's hands—"cliché becomes event," as Adorno says about Mahler—and across the seventh measure there falls, for a moment, the shadow of the minor mode. And when the formal proclamations are done, the music does indeed take off in C minor. Such harmonic-and expressive-ambiguities inform the whole movement. Mozart always likes those shadows, but new here are the unmodulated transitions from major to minor and back, the hardness of the chiaroscuro. The first solo entrance is one of Mozart's most subtle and gently winsome. The greatest marvel of all is the development, brief but dense, with breathtaking range of harmony and an incredible intricacy of canonic writing. The piano has a delightful function in these pages, proposing ideas and new directions, but then settling back and turning into an accompanist who listens to the woodwinds execute what he has imagined. How keenly one senses Mozart's own presence at the keyboard here!

The Andante is subdued, formal, and a little mysterious at the same time, like a knot garden by moonlight, and remarkable, too, for the great span from its slowest notes to its fastest. For the finale, Mozart adapts a gavotte from his then five-year-old opera Idomeneo. In its courtly and witty measures, there is nothing to prepare us for the epiphany of the episode in which the piano, accompanied by cellos and basses alone (a sound that occurs nowhere else in Mozart), begins a smiling and melancholy song that is continued by the oboe, the flute, the bassoon, and in which the cellos cannot resist joining. Lovely in itself, the melody grows into a music whose richness of texture and whose poignancy and passion astonish us. From that joy and pain, Mozart redeems us by leading us back to his gavotte and thence into an exuberantly inventive, brilliant close.

—Michael Steinberg

Program notes © 2013 San Francisco Symphony

Symphonic Ode

Copland was in the first wave of Americans to go to Paris for studies with Nadia Boulanger, and she did more than help him develop the technique that freed him to be himself. It was through her that he met Serge Koussevitzky, who became conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1924. Koussevitzky believed passionately in the cause of new music and in his obligation as head of one of America's most important musical institutions to support American musicians. He presented Copland's Organ Symphony and went on to give the first performances of his Music for the Theater in 1925, the Piano Concerto in 1927, and the Symphonic Ode in 1932.

As for the Symphonic Ode, Koussevitzky had offered Copland a commission for a work to celebrate the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 50th anniversary. But when the Ode went into rehearsal at the end of March 1930, conductor and orchestra experienced tremendous difficulty with the constant changes of tempo and meter. Copland worked hard to simplify the notation, but he suggested the premiere be postponed so he could clarify the appearance of the music on the page still more. When Koussevitzky was finally able to introduce the work, it was generally well-received in the press, though some audiences shrank from its dissonances.

A performance in 1932 in Mexico City under Carlos Chávez went well, but the Ode was not heard again until Thor Johnson conducted it at The Juilliard School in 1946. The Boston Symphony Orchestra's 75th anniversary provided an occasion to revise the score. This time, reviews were thoroughly negative, and Copland found Charles Munch's conducting "stiff and unconvincing…I sure do wish I could hear it conducted by an American."

The Ode was one of Copland's favorites among his works. He thought of it as the piece in which he announced that he had grown up, and many years after its composition he tried to step back and paint its portrait: "The Ode resembles me at the time [of my 30th birthday], full of ideas and ideals, introspective and serious, but still showing touches of youthful jazz days, reflections of a Jewish heritage, remnants of Paris (Boulanger's la grande ligne), influences of Mahler (the orchestration) and Stravinsky (motor rhythms). Looking ahead, one can hear…the beginnings of a purer, non-programmatic style, an attempt toward an economy of material and transparency of texture that would be taken much further in the next few years…I was attempting to write a piece of music with an unbroken logic so thoroughly unified that the very last note bears a relation to the first. I used a two-measure blues motif (from my Nocturne for violin and piano of 1926) as the musical basis of all five sections." Copland was often asked about the title, and he explained that it was "not meant to imply connection with a literary idea. It is not an ode to anything in particular, but rather a spirit that is to be found in the music itself."

The Ode begins in what composer Phillip Ramey has called Copland's "laying-down-the-law" mood, with trumpets and trombones, soon joined by horns, filling the hall with their proclamations. Before long, they involve the whole orchestra in their rhetoric. The lines are jagged, and their combination yields some fiercely dissonant harmonies, although brilliant and insistent major triads are also part of the vocabulary. After a while, a more lyric temper prevails, initiated by a single muted trumpet. As the strings develop some beautifully gauged contrapuntal textures, the speed increases, eventually landing in a real allegro.

Here, I imagine, is where Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra broke down in 1930. This is a scherzo with constant shifts in meter. The music is capricious, exuberant, humorous, very physical, and athletic.

Suddenly the slow music from the beginning returns, though the ordering of events is much rearranged. Then the scherzo reappears, but hushed, and punctuated by brush strokes on a cymbal. This time it leads to a hootchy-kootchy dance, begun by timpani and piano, with violists pretending they are percussionists, too. A grand slowing down brings us back to the original slow tempo, and, organizing a mountainous pileup of sonorities that indicates he had studied the close of Mahler's Second Symphony well, Copland brings his Symphonic Ode to its grandiloquent close.

—Michael Steinberg

Program notes © 2013 San Francisco Symphony

Funding for the Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Additional support for this Carnegie Hall Live broadcast is provided by Macy*s.
The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Richard A. Debs in support of the 2013-2014 season.

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