Review: San Francisco Symphony delivers a modernist message to modern San Francisco

Music Critic

The Bay Area is celebrating — to say nothing of capitalizing on — the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Gas stations here are using hippie graphics to advertise high octane.

In “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll,” an exhibition at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park — on the edge of Haight-Ashbury and the site of love-ins, be-ins and the like — tie-dye is displayed on mannequins as if it were designer fashion. It’s as though such were the genesis of the modern age.

Sunday, in what was billed as “a uniquely theatrical concert event,” the San Francisco Symphony’s “Music for a Modern Age” program had a more modern, more timely and more accurate story to tell. Not that there could be any thought of escaping the modern age on this day. San Francisco happened to be recapturing some of the joy of 1967 with the annual Gay Pride march, and some of that crowd mingled with the more staid concertgoers making their way to Davies Symphony Hall.


What is lost, though, in both the commercializing and art historizing of 1967 is the perspective and musical sophistication that pervaded Haight-Ashbury at the time. There were many Haight Street hippies who all but lived in the nearby art-house movie theater soaking in European cinema and who found equal pleasure listening while high to Luciano Berio (with whom the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh studied), Janis Joplin, John Coltrane and Gustav Mahler.

None of that was the overt theme of music director Michael Tilson Thomas’ program, but all of it was a covert one. MTT’s modern age was a long one. The earliest work (and most modern sounding) on the program was Ives’ “From the Steeples and the Mountains,” with bells galore chiming in clattering elation. Had they been ringing from Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, they would have hailed the festivities outside better than just fine.

The most recent work was from 110 years later, Tilson Thomas’ own “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind,” finished last year and given its West Coast premiere. It is a major work for soprano, two backup singers, bar band and chamber orchestra of winds, brass and a great deal of percussion. It is a setting of Carl Sandburg’s poem that brings Sarah Vaughan, Leontyne Price, James Brown and Igor Stravinsky into the present.

The rest of the varied program was Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” four movements from Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, and George Antheil’s Jazz Age “A Jazz Symphony.” Each work was given extra-musical help, and the Antheil was handled as a lively and entertaining production number with three dancers. Five screens, furthermore, were set up behind the orchestra for video, mimicking the structural sails of Frank Gehry’s New World Center in Miami Beach.

“Playthings” best captured the day. Setting Sandburg’s 1920 poem about our transience, the past “a bucket of ashes,” had been on Tilson Thomas’ mind if not for 50 years, close to it. His first sketches go back to 1976, when hair was still long and the Vietnam War still a national open wound.

Now Sandburg’s words give chills. The woman named Tomorrow cares nothing for grandmother Yesterday. The only listeners left to “the greatest nation / nothing like us ever was” applause line are the rats, and even the rat footprints “tell us nothing, nothing at all.”


“Playthings” is a plaything for the Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who really can reproduce the sultry intensity of Vaughan and the luminosity of Price. Tilson Thomas uses her to give layers of ironic meaning to Sandburg’s text, which can be bluesy one moment, operatically ecstatic the next, and then turn into disco with terrific backups.

A rock electric guitar comes out of nowhere. So does Harrison’s maverick percussion. The winds and brass muddle tonality. Minimal staging by James Durrah added some pizazz, as when the ladies shed their prophet robes for disco glitter. (Dona Granata did the costumes.)

But the real power of Tilson Thomas’ score was that however enjoyable the moment — however snappy or pop-flavored his music, his inner Mahler — the grand implications were ever penetrating.

Oddly enough, there was more Harrison in “Playthings” than the performance of Harrison’s Violin Suite, which the San Francisco Symphony’s associate concertmaster played with such genteel Brahmsian smoothness that the six gamelan percussionists didn’t mess with it.

But Antheil’s “Jazz Symphony,” choreographed by Patricia Birch, was a dazzler. The score takes generously from Stravinsky and Milhaud, but with a flair and sentimental melodiousness all Antheil.

Against a 1920s Parisian background video collage by Clyde Scott, two dancers (Kiva Dawson and Erin Moore) entertainingly flirted with members of the orchestra and the stunning solo pianist, Peter Dugan. The dancing and costumes were more cute than risqué. For more there was the parade outside.

But the effervescent performance was excellent for conjuring up what was and what can no more be, something to keep in mind as we celebrate ourselves as we are and once were.