Sat, Jul 02, 2016 - Page 14 News List

CD reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

MASTERPIECES IN MINIATURE, by Litolff, Mahler, Faure, Delius and others


Litolff, Mahler, Faure, Delius and others

San Francisco Symphony

SFS Media 821936-0060-2 [CD]


Absolute Jest

Conductors: Adams and Tilson Thomas

SFS Media 821936-0063-2 [CD]


The B-Sides, Liquid Interface, Alternative Energy

San Francisco Symphony

SFS Media 821936-0065-2 [CD]


Enchantements oublies, Er Huang, Un temps disparu

Taiwan Philharmonic, cond. Lu Shao-chia

NAXOS 8.570614 [CD]

The San Francisco Symphony (SFS), an orchestra famous for championing new American music, is visiting Taiwan in November as part of an East Asian tour. They will play two concerts, one in Tainan’s Municipal Cultural Center (Nov. 12), the other in Taipei’s National Concert Hall (Nov. 13). They’re also due to play in Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka and Tokyo in a tour lasting from Nov. 9 to Nov. 22.

The SFS won’t confirm the programs yet, but other Internet sources give them as being, at both venues, a piece by their Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas called Agnegram, Mahler’s Symphony No 1, and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2, with Beijing-born Wang Yuja (王羽佳) as soloist. This charismatic pianist is likely to be the entire tour’s main attraction.

In the run-up to these two concerts, potential patrons might like to consider some of the orchestra’s recent CDs. The SFS has a strong following in the region, especially in Japan where their recordings are reportedly eagerly sought-after. In addition the orchestra has, according to its own publicity, “almost a dozen” Chinese-American or Japanese-American instrumentalists.

Wang appears briefly on a CD called Masterpieces in Miniature. There she plays the showy scherzo from Henry Litolff’s Concerto symphonique No 4. Her rendition is highly memorable — tinsel-bright and of glittering, diamond-edged vivacity. Other items on the disc are less remarkable. The SFS performance of Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring feels distinctly heavy-handed, for instance. This is not how Delius, in essence a delicate watercolor artist, is usually played, at least in his native England.

John Adams, now 70, has long enjoyed a special relationship with the SFS. His latest CD on the SFS label, Absolute Jest, contains two items, Grand Pianola Music (composed in 1982), and the relatively recent work of the disc’s title. The latter, for orchestra and string quartet, is a protracted meditation on phrases from three of Beethoven’s late quartets, while the former is a playful fantasy reminiscent of the music of Michael Nyman in the 1991 Peter Greenaway film Prospero’s Books.

In the program notes, Adams demonstrates his hostility to the severities of classic modernism, noting that entertaining their listeners was anathema to the modernists. Adams, by contrast, embraces giving pleasure with open arms, though nowhere turning his back on serious themes (such as the threat of nuclear war in Doctor Atomic, 2005). Both the pieces on this CD are intensely enjoyable, as well as being superbly recorded.

A younger American composer currently working with the SFS is Mason Bates (born 1977). He used to be, and still is, a clubbing DJ, but the kind of music he creates for the SFS consists of electronic effects and sounds from nature — NASA vocal clips, icebergs crumbling, “the bracing industrial techno of Xinjiang Province,” and so on — combined with a symphony orchestra. He’s currently rated as the US’s second most frequently performed classical composer; his CD with the SFS is entitled Mason Bates: Works for Orchestra. He’s currently working on an opera on the life of Steve Jobs.

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