Salonen era begins in San Francisco with video razzle-dazzle

United StatesUnited States Various – Throughlines: Soloists, San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), produced by, available on demand. First streamed on 14.11.2020. (HS)

Esperanza Spalding, Peter Wyrick (l) and Barbara Andres (r)
in Nico Muhly’s Throughline

ReidFear / Release
Adams – ‘Shaking and Trembling’ from Shaker Loops
Beethoven – Allegro con brio from String Quartet No.11 in F minor Op.95s
Muhly – Throughline (world premiere)

A document of the San Francisco Symphony’s response to a pandemic that has hobbled arts organizations around the world, Throughlines succeeds as a showcase for their impressively talented musicians. As a musical experience, the hour-long video misses as often as it hits.

The program tries hard to whip up enthusiasm for the way we must encounter freshly made music now. Rather than being in the same room with the musicians playing for us, we must imbibe it by way of a digital connection, streaming on an electronic device. Earlier in the pandemic, these performances emulated what we are accustomed to seeing in televised concerts. More recently, video directors have made increasing use of offbeat camera angles, multiple frames of various shapes, jump cuts, location shoots outside the concert stage and other tropes borrowed from popular music videos.

Director Clyde Scott overuses this bag of tricks, layering on the visuals to the detriment of anyone’s focus on the music. In one particularly jittery minute of video, I counted more than 75 different images.

Adding to the distractions, the orchestra’s higher-ups can’t resist using this project as a sort of infomercial, with Salonen, CEO Mark C. Hanson, board president Sakurako Fisher and even members of the orchestra asking viewers to become patrons. These are kept short, but enough of them take us far away from where a concert aims to transport us.

The music, however, makes the most important statement. It was recorded recently in Davies Symphony Hall by the orchestra’s musicians, with a different group assigned to each of the five pieces on the program. Some perform together on stage, and others chime in remotely. Guest artists include Kevin Choice and Aïma the Drmr, hip-hop artists featured in ‘Currents’, the orchestra’s summer videos exploring intersections of classical and non-classical music.

The show’s title is taken from Nico Muhly’s 20-minute Throughline, in a world premiere that brings the hour to a solid finish. A San Francisco Symphony commission, Throughline features a gang of eight creative artists that Salonen recruited as ‘collaborative partners’ before live concerts locked down due to COVID-19. The composer (on piano), soprano Julia Bullock and bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding are among the partners performing in the piece, which was written specifically for this digital medium, to be performed by a 40-piece ensemble that includes most of the orchestra’s principals.

Certain musical gestures recur throughout the five connected movements, hence the title. It begins with hazy harmonies that eventually coalesce into a loping rhythm, executed in a studio. An extended virtuosic sequence for winds creates the apex of the first movement.

For the second movement, Muhly wrote nine bars and handed off composing chores to Carol Reiley, an artificial Intelligence entrepreneur who used an artificial intelligence algorithm to fill out the remaining measures in Muhly’s style. On the plus side, the transition felt seamless, but the music here is not the highlight of the piece.

The two middle movements are the best. In the first really arresting moment in the piece, Spalding strides barefoot onto an empty soundstage in Portland, Oregon, picks up her string bass, and lets loose with a wild, improvised, Latin- and African-tinged solo, accompanied by Muhly’s orchestrations. Next up: Bullock, recording in Munich. Her voice and depth of commitment have made her a bright light among today’s opera singers, and Muhly gives her a lyric line that alternately soars to the sky and dips into quiet reverence. (Titles might have helped us understand all the words.)

The last movement pushes the pulse, reaches a climax and segues into an extended section of quiet percussion sounds, accompanied by a video of Salonen wandering the landscape of his native Finland and seeming to summon the music by touching trees, berries and rocks. The final measures recede into mists of delicately phrased mallet instruments.

Intentional or not, the ending claps back to the hour’s opening work. The Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned the percussion quartet, Fear/ Release, by Ellen Reid, whose opera Prism won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for music. The percussionists, including the symphony’s principal, Jacob Nissly, along with Bryce Leafman, Stan Muncy and Arthur Storch, use mostly mallet instruments, vibes and marimbas, creating a warm sound in the soft opening. The music swells into a central section that stops just short of chaos, then floats away. The video places the musicians in locations with views of the city’s familiar skyline, cutting from one to another and back to the studio where it was recorded.

That videography makes sense, coming as it did after Salonen speaks of his desire to cement the orchestra’s connections to the city where it plays. The jump cuts and nervous editing also fit the next work, ‘Shaking and Trembling’, the opening movement of John Adams’ minimalist Shaker Loops. The eight musicians, masked and socially distanced, surround Salonen as he conducts on the Davis Hall stage. They give the music a vibrant rhythmic punch and create a spider web of melodic connection.

(That piece also has deep connections to the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas, who retired this year after 25 years as music director, conducted the New York premiere in 1981; its first recording in 1984 was by Edo de Waart when he was music director and Adams the orchestra’s new music guru.)

Movements, the Kev Choice hip-hop video that follows, uses locations on the streets of Oakland and San Francisco as settings. An 11-piece studio ensemble, scored by Jack Perla, includes solo spots for principal clarinetist Carey Bell that weaves nicely into Choice’s soft-edged music. The words, appropriately, expound on diversity and inclusion.

David Chernyavsky, David Kim, Anne Pinsker and Chen Zhao follow with the Allegro con brio from Beethoven’s String Quartet No.11, playing it with appropriate finesse. This brief tangent into European Romantic music perhaps is intended as a reminder that the upcoming Salonen era is not all about pushing boundaries.

Given that the symphony’s live concerts through June 2021 have been canceled due to the pandemic, we can expect more digital efforts. Let’s hope they will be more about the music than a constant diet of video razzle-dazzle.

Harvey Steiman

This performance remains available on demand indefinitely at the San Francisco Symphony website (click here).

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