Summer Breezes from Susanna Phillips in Radiant Knoxville


 Hearne, Barber, Tchaikovsky: Susanna Phillips (soprano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Christian Reif (conductor),  Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 30.9.2015 (HS)

Ted Hearne: Dispatches
Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor,“Pathétique”


Summer may be over on the calendar but soprano Susanna Phillips, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and the San Francisco Symphony kept the warm breezes flowing and scent of jasmine in the air a bit longer with Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, in a wonderfully atmospheric performance. Barber’s languid phrases wafted from the Davies Symphony Hall stage for a quarter-hour of sheer bliss.

Phillips’ clear, supple voice was only part of the equation. Born and raised in Alabama, she invested every phrase with extra dimensions. Even in moments of silence, a shrug here, a wistful smile there, and subtle body language felt exactly right for the narrative.

Leontyne Price, one of the piece’s greatest interpreters, famously said, “You can smell the South in it.” This American classic springs from James Agee’s prose poem, originally published separately but later employed as the prologue to his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family. Darker than the surface colors, the poem’s subtext alludes to the death of Agee’s father when the writer was only six years old. Similarly, Barber lost several members of his family while he was composing the score.

Phillips caught these undercurrents, while painting a soft-edged portrait of stillness and beauty. Tilson Thomas drew out a gently rhythmic orchestral shimmer. If at times the balance favored the instruments over the voice, especially when Phillips was using her middle and low range, vocal phrases soared exquisitely when they lifted into the higher register.

The contrast was stark between this music and the opener, Dispatches by Ted Hearne, co-commissioned by San Francisco Symphony, the Florida-based New World Symphony, and the publisher Boosey and Hawkes. Christian Reif, the associate conductor of NWS (where Tilson Thomas is music director), led the first performances in Miami last January, when Tilson Thomas was indisposed, and did so again here.

In this rambunctious piece, the composer channeled melodic fragments from Stevie Wonder,  Erykah Badu, and electronica gestures through the classical composition process. In performance, however, these elements were subsumed into complex, bottom-heavy dissonances. While Hearne shows complete command of compositional memes and orchestration, the meaning of the music did not emerge, at least on first hearing.

More invigorating is how the piece incorporates rhythmic riffs, guitar feedback, and heavy-duty orchestral punctuations into the musical argument. It doesn’t sound like anything else. But repeated hearings will be needed to get a real handle on it.

The second half of the concert unrolled an impressively assured, utterly faithful performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony. Tilson Thomas avoided any layers of overt interpretation, and instead provided a deftly-grounded framework for the musicians to shine when their moments came. In particular, principal clarinetist Carey Bell offered hushed, distant-sounding high entrances in the stately and heartfelt finale. And in the approach to the climax of the third movement, principal percussionist Jacob Nissly’s deliciously offbeat cymbal crashes added an extra level of excitement.

Harvey Steiman

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  1. Cynthia verges says:

    Thank you for your review of the magnificent Ms. Phillips and her stunning performance last night. It was a tour de force.

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