Hip hop provides a fun jolt in San Francisco Symphony’s season opener

United StatesUnited States Various: Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Kev Choice (hip-hop artist), Anthony Veneziale (Two-Touch), Hila Plitmann (soprano), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 23.9.2023. (HS)

Red lighting and a projection enhance Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer with baritone Simon Keenlyside and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen © Drew Altizer Photography

R. StraussDon Juan
Mahler – Songs of a Wayfarer
Anders HillborgRap Notes

San Francisco Symphony opened its 2023 season with a program that included three guaranteed crowd-pleasers and one audacious contemporary piece which involved two hip-hop artists and an operatic soprano dueling it out at the climax.

In the reprise of the opening program on Saturday, the orchestra delivered juicy performances of familiar works by Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Maurice Ravel under music director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s vivid conducting. Nestled between them, however, was Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s Rap Notes, further enhanced by Artificial Intelligence-driven projections of the words emerging from the rappers.

As good as the rest of the program was, Hillborg’s twelve-minute romp stole the show. It cast the orchestra as a rhythmic and sonic baseline, with no compromise in its classical-music structure. The band’s gradual crescendo gave the words something solid to fly over as the soloists improvised them.

Providing the lyrics were Oakland-based hip-hop artist (and composer) Kev Choice, whose zesty ‘Movements’ livened things up on a SF Symphony-produced video released during the Covid lockdown; and freestyle artist Anthony Veneziale (a.k.a. Two-Touch), whose credits include creating an improvisational hip-hop group with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Their rapid-fire rhyming commented entertainingly on the evening’s culture clash and Bay Area issues, while an AI computer gamely tried to keep up with projecting the words on a screen that stretched across the back of the stage.

The nod to the Bay Area’s tech industry, currently a hotbed of AI development, could not have been more timely. After Choice and Veneziale fed keywords solicited from the audience to AI so it could produce its own rap, the computer froze. It is unclear whether that was intentional, but it made the point that AI can’t quite match a talented human.

Anthony Veneziale, soprano Hila Plitmann and Kev Choice at the climax of Anders Hillborg’s Rap Notes © Drew Altizer Photography

As if to further that point, soprano Hila Plitmann strode onstage for the final minutes, dropping in the familiar wordless high-lying staccato coloratura from the Queen of the Night’s ‘Die hölle rache’ in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. That led to a wonderful faceoff with the rappers, who picked up on the rhythm. Bouncing the solos back and forth, the three brought the piece to a delirious conclusion.

Video projections continued through the program, along with gradually changing lighting on the orchestra, here red, there yellow, other times blue. The projections of digitally-enhanced art, both representational and abstract, tied in with the music although it did not time things perfectly to sync with rhythms as pop concerts might. The projections also missed the opportunity to show translations for the German poetry in the other vocal piece on the program, Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer.

British baritone Simon Keenlyside gave the four songs a dramatic performance. Open-collared, in a loose-fitting suit and shuffling nervously, he portrayed the narrator as a sort of schlub. That fit the composer’s intent. Mahler described the character as ‘a traveling journeyman who has suffered a fate’.

Keenlyside shaped every vocal line with care, and they emerged with musical clarity even when he resorted to falsetto to get the softer high notes. The result felt just right, and when his voice dipped into the lower ranges, the emotional impact worked even better. Salonen drew sensitive playing from the orchestra throughout, especially in the fade-out ending of the last song (familiar, as much of the music was, from its use in the Symphony No.1).

The shimmering AI-produced images of a woman might have been meant to reflect the ‘blue-eyed’ inamorata in the songs, only this woman was Black, adding an extra piece of visual dissonance. Perhaps the artist meant to suggest that she could be every woman.

Morphing, abstract shapes and colors accompanied the opener, Strauss’s Don Juan. It was punctuated by the occasional inclusion of faces and figures, perhaps references to Don Juan’s targets. Salonen’s brazenly heart-on-sleeve approach to the music was highlighted by the horn section covering itself in glory. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik’s violin solos were ardent, and the tutti sections made big splashes.

Ravel’s Boléro wrapped things up as a sort of bookend for Hillborg’s insistent rhythms and ostinatos. The program note took pains to point out that Ravel considered the piece ‘experimental’. He built it all on a repeated tune that never develops, as would have been expected in Western classical music. It gains in intensity by adding instruments and volume until it crashes at the end. It was derided at the time by fuddy-duddies, but (perhaps to the composer’s chagrin) it remains his most popular work.

The all-abstract splashes of color in the projections were pretty enough, but the orchestra nailed their jobs. The evening added up to a ripper of a performance.

Harvey Steiman

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