United States Montgomery, Simon, Bizet: San Francisco Symphony / Joseph Young (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 3.6.2021. (HS)
Jessie Montgomery – Banner
Carlos Simon – An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave
Bizet – Carmen Suite for Strings and Percussion (arr. Rodion Shchedrin)
The man in front of me, a tall guy with long hair and stuffed into an ill-fitting suit, rocked his body and bounced his head along with the rhythmic music. His companion, her white hair combed back tightly, hardly moved but she seemed rapt with the music. To their right, in the row behind them, a middle-aged man shifted uncomfortably in his seat as the 45-minute main piece unfolded.
On stage, 28 members of the San Francisco Symphony, spread out to fill a stage that in the before-times held 100-plus for Mahler symphonies, lavished their talents on a 70-minute, intermission-less program engagingly introduced and conducted by Joseph Young. Making his San Francisco Symphony debut, the South Carolina native became a local in 2019 when he began a tenure as music director of the Berkeley Symphony across the bay.
If, after more than a year limited to digital performances, the orchestra’s playing in front of this socially distanced audience was just a bit ragged around the edges, the intent of the music came through clearly.
This was especially true of Banner, Jessie Montgomery’s radical reworking of the U.S. national anthem that fits random familiar phrases from the piece into a sort of fantasia. Montgomery, now composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony, wrote the work in 2014, imagining what an anthem for the twenty-first century might sound like. The opening measures thrummed with possibilities and, over its nine minutes, episodes of Latin dance rhythms and allusions to other nations’ anthems and patriotic songs were woven together into a distinctly American statement.
Young’s spoken introduction evoked memories of Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra’s long-time conductor, who often set up music new to audiences with pithy observations. Young noted that Banner’s substantial reworking of familiar music echoes what the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin did with the familiar strains of Bizet’s opera in his Carmen Suite for Strings and Percussion, which concluded the concert.
This is no simple medley. Although it was written for a ballet version of the opera, it does not follow the familiar story arc. Instead, it reassembles chunks of the music with unexpected but often inspired orchestration and harmonies, sets sections in totally different rhythms, interjects random accents and, just for the hell of it, throws in the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne and a few phrases from another Bizet opera. In short, it messes with Carmen like Montgomery does with the national anthem and emerges with something new and entertaining.
At least it does to twenty-first-century ears. Soviet authorities banned Shchedrin’s score shortly after its premiere in 1967 as ‘disrespectful’ to Bizet.
For their part, the orchestra’s percussion crew injected extra layers of energy when added to the strings. They threw themselves into the music’s caustic wit with brilliant execution of harp music on marimbas, atmospheric allusions to familiar tunes on tubular bells and surprise thrusts of loud snare drums. Meanwhile 23 string players valiantly took on the melodic and harmonic chores. Young, intent on keeping the pulse moving, left some of Bizet’s climactic phrases short, but the overall effect was invigorating.
Between these two works, Carlos Simon’s An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave, originally written in 2015 for string quartet, provided a moment of quiet reflection. Though the composer, known for his long association with the singer Jennifer Holliday, wanted to reflect on the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, in purely musical terms its three-minute arc takes a harmonically soothing deep breath, mixing sorrow with hope.
The orchestra’s third set of programs since authorities have allowed audiences to be in the same space as the performers was my first live performance after 15 months of connecting with classical music only via the computer. Gradually, it’s coming back.