In his 2010 book, “The Rest is Noise,” Alex Ross trots out the old saw that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Likening it to art reviews, Ross notes that Rothko’s Orange and Yellow can be accurately described as “an area of yellow paint floating above an area of orange paint,” but that’s meaningless if you’ve ever seen a Rothko. Ross’s observation is all the more true when the music is so excellent that it goes to the heart of why we listen to music, which is what happened last night when Kurt Masur conducted Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A Major (the Italian) and the incidental music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Opus 61).
Very few conductors – and even fewer American conductors – are household names. Masur’s reputation is as anchored in his rehabilitation of the New York Philharmonic as it is in his role during the peaceful demonstrations that led to the German reunification. With a kidney transplant in his ’70s, he’s now in his mid ‘80s. Truly one of the grand old men of the international music scene, he continues to tour and conduct, including three concerts this weekend at Davies Symphony Hall.
From the moment that Masur stepped to the podium in his grey silk Nehru jacket, the San Francisco Symphony underscored the difference between listening to recorded music and listening to the real thing. The SF Symphony web site points readers toward various excellent recordings including one by George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and another by Masur himself, conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Leipzig Radio Chorus. However, since this music was composed for live performance, any recording is second best.
The primacy of live performance is nowhere more evident than the role played by the six basses that drive the Italian Symphony forward because this can be missed in even the best recordings. While the tension between the strings, wind and brass propels much of this work forward, the basses walk the listener into both the second and third movements and provide the momentum throughout. Curiously, both of these movements are titled “con moto” or “in motion”; the second movement being an Andante con moto and the third, a Con moto moderato. Whereas the second movement has the somber feel of a religious processional (which some writers liken to processions Mendelssohn may have seen in Italy), the third movement is lighter in tone. In both these movements, the “in motion” quality is led by the bass. This is particularly unusual in the third movement, in which Mendelssohn replaced the traditional scherzo with a menuet and trio.
The Complete Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream is rarely played. Most frequently, we hear the Overture, with its signature four chord opening, or the Wedding March. This performance provides the whole thing, from the slight musical openings to the longer bits such as Act II’s You Spotted Snakes. The audience was treated to the Shakespeare’s original English text, instead of the German translation for which this was written. Itay Tiran narrated the text with such a multiplicity of voices, including a deliciously simpering Puck, that he drew appreciative smiles and laughter. Tiran was joined by Soprano Susannah Biller, mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani and the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus. All the signature bits such as the donkey’s braying and the shimmering violins that set the fairies in motion engage and enchant.
I rarely leave Davies without thinking how enormously lucky we are to have the SF Symphony as our hometown band. With Masur gracing the podium this weekend, the pleasure is ever more keen.
Kurt Masur conducts Mendelssohn
San Francisco Symphony
4 out of 5 stars
Conductor ~ Kurt Masur
Susannah Biller ~ Soprano
Maya Lahani ~ Mezzo-soprano
Itay Tiran ~ Narrator
San Francisco Girls Choir ~ Susan McMane, director
March 10th – March 12th