Friday, October 30, 2009

Michael Tilson Thomas And The San Francisco Symphony's "Keeping Score: Season Two" Installations On Berlioz, Ives, And Shostakovich – The Review

The San Francisco Symphony – under conductor and host Michael Tilson Thomas -- has recently released the second full season of its “Keeping Score” public television, radio, and internet-based multi-media programming – this season launching hour-long programs focusing on three great composers and three great works of classical symphonic music – Hector Berlioz and his “Symphonie Fantastique”, Charles Ives’s and his “Holidays Symphony”, and Dmitri Shostakovich and his ”Symphony #5.” In the autumn of 2006, the San Francisco Symphony and public television station KQED released three programs in their path-breaking series: installations on Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony #3, Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” and Aaron Copland and American classical music. In 2004, an initial episode aired on Pyotr Ilyich Chaikowsky and his Symphony #4.

While the initial four episodes, in 2004 and 2006, were outstanding, the new set is - in many ways - even more outstanding. These three new programs are joyful, powerful, evocative, and democratic celebrations of symphonic classical music over the past 175 years, and what it means to be human. All of these programs will be best enjoyed not just once, but – better – two or even three times. Along with an upcoming special installation on Gustav Mahler, the San Francisco Symphony will have created an eight-part, experimental and national public television cycle – with accompanying interactive website --on eight composers who mean so much to Michael Tilson Thomas, to the excellent musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, and to millions of 21st century classical music listeners today – whether they are seasoned listeners or new to classical music; and whether they are 10 years old or 100 years old. Those seven composers -- Beethoven, Berlioz, Chaikovsky, Mahler, Stravinsky, Ives, Copland, and Shostakovich -- and eight major works represent the basis for both an introduction to symphonic classical music, or a review of understanding of symphonic classical music for those more experienced and fortunate.

Two weeks ago, I attended a special program at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., examining the 40th anniversary of the release, in America, of Lord Kenneth Clark’s BBC and PBS 13-part series (and book) “Civilization”, in 1969. One of the program participants, from Britain, noted that, today, the state-controlled broadcaster, the BBC, would never commit to a 13-part series of programs –six being the new, unwritten limit. However, the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, and KQED, have already well breached the BBC limit of six, having produced, or being in the process of producing, eight installations (and websites) in its “Keeping Score” Project. There is no reason why – given the unflagging enthusiasm from Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony musicians, and the producers – the Project could not continue for at least another two seasons (or more).

Now, I will state here upfront that for 21st century classical music listeners – both experienced and new – I completely agree with the “Keeping Score” Project’s strategy of starting with 20th and 19th century masterpieces. There was no reason why, given Michael Tilson Thomas’s and the musicians of the Symphony’s musical passions, that the Project should have started with J.S. Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart (and, later, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Dvorak). While those composers are touchstones of “Civilization” (or better, “Western Civilization”), the modern symphonic orchestra today is primarily focused firmly on 20th, 19th, and 21st century music.

By choosing these eight great composers and works, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony musicians have placed the focus squarely on the immense passion, power, and mystery of great Western (and now, world) symphonic classical music. One comes away from the seven programs on Beethoven, Berlioz, Chaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ives, Copland, and Shostakovich knowing much more deeply how it feels to be a great, generous, passionate, and highly intelligent composer. (Michael Tilson Thomas notes that Charles Ives would have been a great American president.) One does this, in large part, by now knowing much more about the historical and social times in which the seven composers lived over a period of 150 years. (Other public television and web-site programming can explore the music of the past 50 years, as explored by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in its earlier, successful, American Mavericks programming - successful at least in regards to more recent American classical music.)

Speaking of 20th century and contemporary classical music, let me refer briefly to two lesser known public television efforts on the part of classical music (there may be more than two) made in the 34 years between the last season in 1972, on CBS, of Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” (which ran for fifteen years) and Michael Tilson Thomas’s and the San Francisco Symphony’s “Keeping Score” Projects of 2006 and 2009. In the 1980s, French television and public media produced the "Pierre Boulez XX Century Project"; while in the 1990s, British television released the ten programs (and Michael Hall authored book) of Simon Rattle’s “Leaving Home: A Tour of Twentieth Century Music” series. Both are, I believe, still available today, and I highly recommend the (Sir) Simon Rattle/Michael Hall “Leaving Home” television programs and accompanying book. However, the Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony eight-part television, radio, and website series/project is the best that we can expect in our early 21st century, post-“Civilization” age, and is superb, in and of itself. As I mentioned above, the passion and excitement of the 20th and 19th century Western symphonic classical music tradition – as exemplified in six great works of art -- comes through with flying colors.

All of the programs have wonderful, imaginative touches that will appeal to younger viewers and less-committed older viewers. The Berlioz program, naturally given the symphonic work in question, focuses on Berlioz’s lifetime love for Anglo-Irish actress Harriet Smithson, from the time they meet but had no common language to later in life when he supported her despite her business failures and growing mental problems. However, we also view 19th century musical dolls and a young Alpine village boy singing a French folksong that later influenced the symphony, as well as learn why having studied medicine can potentially help composers when the persons they love do not get with the program (poison and the antidote to poison is involved.) (In fact, all of the new programs have fascinating focii on the young composers and folk music; as well as unsurpassable glimpses and discussions of the pleasant living spaces in which the young composers grew up. I also enjoyed the wonderful glimpses of the Concert Halls of the Paris Conservatory, Yale University, and the Saint Petersburg Conservatory; only the last of which I have ever visited.)

Of the new programs, both the Ives and the Shostakovich programs are a bit too hyper-active visually in their opening minutes – the Shostakovich when exploring Soviet artistic life in the 1920s through a whirlwind of constructivism and futurism, the Ives, when watered-down Nam June Paik techniques are used to evoke the multiplicity of American experience at the opening of the twentieth century. Fortunately, both shows grow beyond this trendy hyperactivity, and they both find firmer groundings in slow, exceptionally thoughtful comments from the musicians of the Symphony – especially the handful of both older and younger Russian- and Ukrainian-American San Francisco Symphony musicians who discuss their experiences in the Soviet Union before 1991. (Broadly speaking, the Ives program comes across as transcendential, while the Shostakovich program comes across as existential.)

I personally liked the Charles Ives’s program best of the seven, despite the somewhat weak opening. Watching this wonderful program that deepened magnificently – and grew in transcendental mysticism -- over the course of the 55 minutes, I was reminded of the early 1970s when I performed some of Charles Ives’s symphonic music in both California and Germany (under Denis de Couteau and the Oakland Youth Orchestra) and some chamber music in Philadelphia, and when I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra perform the “Holidays Symphony” in the winter of either 1973 or 1974 – at about the time of the Charles Ives’s Centennial. I also recalled watching a documentary on Charles Ives on public television in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1972; which naturally led me to think about the American decline and loss of the past two generations since then. (WETA-FM, in the Nation's Capital, recently featured a special "Symphony Weekend" but no music of Charles Ives was programmed; nor music of Shostakovich. Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 1 and Mahler's Symphony #5 were, however, included; both of which were unusual for the very conservative station.)

While the seven composer "Keeping Score" websites are available day and night, viewing the three new “Keeping Score” installations will be a bit more work, and parents and caregivers to the young will have to be on point – especially in the Nation's Capital. (The first seven composers and works are also available now on DVD and blu-ray; and may be now in some public libraries in enlightened zones of the late American empire.)

Given balkanized civilization in America today, viewers in the San Francisco area were privileged not only to have been treated to “Keeping Score” last season (unlike in the cultural recession-scarred Nation’s Capital), but to have been able to view the "Keeping Score" installations on Berlioz and Shostakovich on KQED at fairly normal times – with the Shostakovich Symphony #5 program premiering last night.

In the Nation’s Capital, WETA will, in fact, be showing the second set of “Keeping Score”, if not the earlier set, but it will involve some sacrifice to normal living and sleeping schedules – for children and adults – to catch these wonderful programs, at least on their first round. (Unlike in the 1960s, I recall, when I was allowed to play outdoors on Saturday mornings, until Leonard Bernstein and the Young People’s Concerts came on at 11 AM. And, no, I was not groomed in the Washington, D.C. of the 1960s for more than an avocational life in music, despite fine violin instruction and even better high school and youth orchestra experiences.)

The Berlioz "Symphonie Fantastique" episode will first be shown on WETA, in the Nation’s Capital, on Sunday, November 1, 2009, at 2:30 PM. The wonderful Charles Ives’s and his "Holidays Symphony" episode will first be broadcast in the Nation’s Capital on Saturday November 7 at 7 AM (yes, AM); followed by the Shostakovich Symphony #5 episode on Saturday November 7 at 8 AM (yes, AM).

This is bizarre and unwarranted on the part of WETA.

KQED viewers could see the three episodes on three consecutive Saturdays at 8 p.m. beginning on October 17. Alternatively, they can also see the wonderful Charles Ives episode for a second time this Sunday, Nov 1, 2009 at 1:00 PM – a much more civilized time than 7 AM as in Washington, D.C. -- especially for younger people who need their morning sleep.


Header credit: Harvey Dinnerstein “Sundown, the Crossing” 1999. 74 x 84”. Gift to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from the Frey Norris Gallery.
(c) Harvey Dinnerstein and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 2009. Copyright controlled. All rights reserved.


Edited to add reference to KQED's 2004 Keeping Score episode on Chaikovsky.


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