Arts & Events

San Francisco Symphony’s Opening Night Gala

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday September 09, 2016 - 02:06:00 PM

Opening Night Galas are not my thing. I find something cloyingly self-congratulatory about these events, a trait that was markedly evident on Wednesday, September 7, in Michael Tilson Thomas’s opening remarks in which he shamelessly fished for applause from the opening night audience, which predictably gave him what he so gracelessly asked for. Then MTT led the orchestra in The Star-Spangled Banner.” Do we really need to hear this patriotic pap before every single sports event and opening night musical event, as if we needed to wrap ourselves in the American flag in order to give ourselves a veneer of self-righteousness? I found myself longing for a Colin Kapernick to refuse to stand for the National Anthem in protest against all that is wrong and needing reform in our nation.

As for the Opening Night musical program, the first half was wonderful. The second half was dreadful, but we’ll deal with that later. To open the concert, MTT conducted Gioachino Rossini’s overture to Guillaume Tell/William Tell. This, of course, is a well-worn chestnut, familiar to everyone from commercials using this overture’s famous last section. However, few people are familiar with this overture’s soft, solemn opening music for five solo cellos, accompanied very discreetly by the basses and contrabasses. Nor are they familiar with the pastoral music that follows, with a poignant melody played on English horn while a flute solo soars ravishingly above. In this music, Principal Horn player Robert Ward and Principal Flutist Tim Day performed admirably. Following the last dying note of the English horn, trumpets enter with a fanfare that precedes the well-known final section’s impetuous and all-too rhythmically repetitive theme. Despite the rather vulgar insistence of the bass drum, this final section brings the William Tell Overture to a resounding and ultimately satisfying climax. 

Next on the program was famed mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who sang the aria “Deh, per questo istante solo/Ah, from this single instant” from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. In this aria, Sextus, a friend of Roman emperor Tito (Titus), sings of his anguish over actions Tito believes indicate Sextus’s treason. “If only you [Tito] could read my heart,” sings Sextus, “you would be less cruel.” Susan Graham brought off this dramatic aria splendidly, her ravishing dark tones expressing Sextus’s deeply felt anguish. Following this selection, famed soprano Renée Fleming sang the aria “Ecco: respiro appena … Io son l’umile ancilla/I scarecely breathe… I’m the humble servant” from Francesco Cilea’s opera Adriana Lecouvreur. Although this opera is rarely performed now, this aria remains popular, and with good reason. In it Adriana sings of her faithfulness to art, a cause she serves as a humble handmaiden. Renée Fleming sang liltingly in this aria, her silvery tone shining brightly throughout. Fleming followed this selection with an unannounced aria, O mio babbino, caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, which she sang beautifully. 

Next came what for me was the highlight of the concert, a duet from Mozart’s Così fan Tutte featuring Susan Graham and Renée Fleming as the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. In “Ah, guarda sorella/Ah, look sister” from the opera’s Act I, the sisters egg each other on in praising the admirable qualities of their respective fiancés. With subtle gestures, both vocal and dramatic, Graham and Fleming delicately portrayed the way Mozart both celebrates and sends-up the conventional sentiments expressed by the sisters and does so in music that both celebrates and sends-up the formulaic clichés of their musical expression.  

After intermission, MTT took the microphone to pay tribute to American maverick composer Steve Reich, who just turned 80 and was present in the audience. Then MTT led the orchestra in Reich’s 1985 composition Three Movements. This is a minimalist piece that proceeds fast, slow, fast. As in most minimalist works, rhythmic pulsation is paramount. Melody and harmony make only rare and fleeting appearances. I find this music annoyingly grating when it is not simply soporific. 

Next came a long, tedious section devoted to show tunes by George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Susan Graham sang “Fascinating Rhythm,” from the Gershwin musical Lady, Be Good.” This show tune features a “peculiar jump” in the melody, and at one point the words “fascinatin’ rhythm” sounded to me like “flatullatin’ rhythm’, a malapropism that seemed all too appropriate. Following this piece Renée Fleming sang “Summertime” from the Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Fleming sang this well-known piece in high operatic style, a stylistic choice that rarely works for me. Only Leontyne Price could bring this off. Where “Summertime” should be relaxed and lilting, Fleming’s version seemed tense and strained. The concert’s final programmed piece was a duet from Susan Graham and Renée Fleming in “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” from Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun.” Predictably, this was a hoot. Not great music, to be sure. But a hoot. Actually, I found this piece and the whole section devoted to the Gershwin’s and Irving Berlin to be dreadful and all too redolent of MTT’s overly fond attachment to Broadway musicals. Finally, as if to atone for the dubious musical value of this section, Susan Graham and Renée Fleming closed the concert with a lovely encore, the ravishing duet from Leo Délibes’ opera Lakme.