Breathing forests and village weddings energize the San Francisco Symphony and Esa-Pekka Salonen

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, Smith: James McVinnie (organ), Lauren Snouffer (soprano), Kayleigh Decker (mezzo-soprano), Paul Appleby (tenor), David Soar (bass), Hillary Leben (animator), San Francisco Symphony Chorus (director: Jenny Wong). San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 18.11.2023. (HS)

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony perform Stravinsky’s Les Noces (animation by Hillary Leben) © SFO

Stravinsky – Octet for Wind Instruments (1952 revision); Les Noces (2005 orchestration by Steven Stucky)
Gabriella SmithBreathing Forests

The San Francisco Symphony and music director Esa-Pekka Salonen sandwiched an extraordinary new piece by California composer Gabriella Smith between two offbeat works by Igor Stravinsky on Friday and Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall. The performances were part of ‘California Festival: A Celebration of New Music’, a statewide event involving more than a hundred musical organizations.

Smith’s piece, Breathing Forests, could not have been more Californian, centering as it does on a distressing number of large-scale forest fires that have burned swaths of trees in recent years. A self-styled ‘environmental composer’, her previous works for orchestra include Lost Coast (a cello concerto debuted earlier this year by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel) and Bioluminescence Chaconne (debuted by the Oregon Symphony in 2019).

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Smith at age 31 has established herself as a leading figure alongside John Luther Adams, Alexander Liebermann and other eco-minded composers, but she does it in her own way.

A performance at the Aspen Music Festival this past summer of Field Guide, a tone poem of bird calls that debuted at the Cabrillo Festival in 2017, almost prepared me for the massive expanses of this new work. What struck me about Field Guide was Smith’s signature ability to express the sounds of nature in music. Unlike Olivier Messiaen, the early twentieth-century French composer who used birdsong as melodic elements for piano and orchestra music that sounded more or less like themselves, in Field Guide Smith created an uncannily realistic dawn chorus from combinations of instruments.

Composer Gabriella Smith © Kristen Loken

Over its 30 minutes, the three parts of Breathing Forests felt as expansive and all-embracing as the California landscape itself. The only notable nod to classical form was the fast-slow-fast sequence of the movements: ‘Grow’, ‘Breathe’ and ‘Burn’.

Her use of the hall’s Ruffatti organ was also unusual, inspired by and played by her organist friend James McVinnie, who sports a long list of works written for him by leading composers. Avoiding overtly show-off virtuosity, the organ contributed depth and power to the work’s massive sound palette in big moments, and added fluttering filigrees to other sections.

The opening began with wispy figures in the strings, short cells in an inchoate pattern that gradually coalesced into broad and joyful power. It got its energy not from rich harmonies, pounding rhythms or majestic melodies but from an outpouring of layered, natural, non-electronic orchestral sound.

‘Breathe’ has a long, slow pulse, the string players barely touching their bows to the strings to create a soft bed of sound. Eventually groans and squawks from the brass and woodwinds evoked trees bending in the wind. As the movement wound down, brass players blew through their mouthpieces, reminding us that trees thrive on our carbon dioxide-rich breath and turn it into nourishing oxygen. This blowing into mouthpieces, an overused technique in contemporary music, felt right in this context.

Sharp flickers of brass riffs at the start of the finale built into a full-scale calamity. Loud, sustained sounds, supported by the organ at its lowest pitches, delivered a palpable sense of the frightening power of a wildfire. Rather than subsiding, the music ever so gradually dropped one dissonant element after another until what was left was a richly orchestrated major chord. This remarkable effect ultimately delivered relief and a sense of joy.

Salonen, who conducted the premiere last year in Los Angeles, shaped a performance that brought clarity and coherence to this very different music. To start the concert, he led a strong ensemble of orchestra musicians in Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments, which stepped with sprightly precision through the tricky rhythms in a snappy performance.

After intermission came Les Noces, Stravinsky’s oddball celebration of a wedding in a Russian village. Making it even stranger were Hillary Leben’s animated reels of vampirish insects dancing in home plumbing to the music. Translation titles were incorporated in the animated toilet paper and faucets. Last season, Leben provided similarly comic animation for Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus, and her program note made it clear that she was going for bigger laughs this time.

I liked the visuals. I also preferred the late Steven Stucky’s vivid orchestration, which dates from his tenure as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s resident composer in the early 2000s under Salonen and fits the California theme. Less clangorous than Stravinsky’s four pianos and percussion, Stucky’s version still preserved the busy percussion.

The quartet of singers managed to cut through it, especially soprano Lauren Snouffer, whose call of the bride brought to mind some of the woodwind cries in The Rite of Spring. Mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Decker, tenor Paul Appleby and bass David Soar kept pace, rising to delirious heights for the wedding feast scene that closed the work.

Harvey Steiman

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