SF Symphony Chorus Shines at Davies

Thirteen years after the future

The San Francisco Symphony placed their faith in a strangely hopeful future last Thursday, September 25, with a program that included themes from Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s landmark film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Richard Strauss’ stirring Also sprach Zarathustra became famous as the opening for this film, huge chords climbing to resolution as ape-like hominids capered around an alien monolith (while getting a nudge up the evolutionary ladder). They performed this on the second half of the Symphony program, along with two other pieces quoted in the movie, The Blue Danube Waltz and Lux Aeterna.

And now it is 2014, thirteen years after the 2001 setting of Kubrik’s 1968 film. 

Michael Tilson Thomas- by Stefan CohenKubrick abandoned noir for a film about the evolution of humanity, with a nineteenth century optimism that drew on Strauss’ homage to the philosophy of Nietzsche. The introduction to Also sprach Zarathustra is instantly recognizable, a translation of horn fanfares and kettledrums into pure rush, but most people might not recognize the rest of the long tone poem. Horns occasionally alluded to that opening, but the rest is recognizably fin de siècle. Bass flutters and long violin solos (played lovingly by Alexander Barantschik) vied with Wagnerian storms, but, coming at the end of a long concert, the work was hard to sustain.

Not unsurprisingly, the Blue Danube Waltz by the unrelated Johann Strauss, Jr. was performed with more zest, replacing weighty themes of redemption with danceable moves.

And topping that was Lux Aeterna by György Ligeti. The SF Symphony Chorus divided into sixteen parts for this difficult meditation on “eternal light,” which Kubrick used along with other Ligeti pieces (and never paid him for it!). The chorus raised indeterminacy to a high art with staggered entrances and clusters of notes. Dual pitch centers metamorphosed into quasi-resolutions, sharp discords were overlaid until they blurred into soft folds of notes, and a low bass unity stretched “Domine”, or “Lord,” into a universal ground plane.

A gorgeous piece, finely prepared by Ragnar Bohlin (who conducted this), and gorgeously executed!

Taking advantage of the presence of the SF Symphony Chorus for Lux Aeterna, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas opened the concert with a seldom performed a cappella work, “…then the rocks on the mountain began to shout.”

But first he turned and spoke about the composer. “Lukas Foss was an incredibly ardent musician and composer with a free-wheeling approach to improvisation. He was fearless in chance, indeterminacy, minimalism, electronics, but he made these all his own… And a great fan of Bach, and loved to explore mysteries like is D-sharp equal to E-flat? (Yes, on the keyboard, but not on the strings!)”

After raising his hands to conduct, a singer shook her head, and MTT eventually went back offstage to scare up an oboe for their pitch. “This is very Foss,” he remarked to the audience with a laugh and they began.

Sharp vowels and soft sibilants made waves across the ranks of the 90 singers, as MTT conducted with precision and palpable enjoyment. “Ah’s” gave way to firmer shapes, slowly evolving into the “chaka chaka” of a Balinese chant before degrading back into vocal billows.

The chorus was joined by orchestra for a nice companion piece, Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England. This was a little brash for comfort, as Ives truculently mashed motives and styles into creepy ethereality and manic marching band. But then it resolved with chorus into wondrous textures and near-Gregorian chanting.

And then back to the future!

Thursday’s concert was uplifting with its themes of evolution and spirituality. But how have we really scored on Kubrick’s vision of the future? Well, we developed those communicators from Star Trek, and proved that the “God” particle, the Higgs boson, really exists. But our space program is stalled. Food riots are in, bees are dying, and beheadings are back.2001-a-space-odyssey

And as our oceans warm, the Flood is inching higher. As in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we could sure use some alien intelligences to give us another nudge up the evolutionary ladder.

—Adam Broner

Photo, top of MTT and Symphony, photo by Stefan Cohen; below, detail from “2001” publicity photo.