When San Francisco Symphony returns to Ann Arbor, even what’s old is new

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Nov. 12, 2014)

The San Francisco Symphony – Mahler, Liszt, Prokofiev and Ravel

  • Who: The San Francisco Symphony
  • What: Two different concerts, featuring Mahler (Thursday); and Liszt, Prokofiev and Ravel (Friday).
  • Where: Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor
  • When: Thursday, Nov. 13, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Nov. 14, 8 p.m.
  • How Much: $14-$85, University Musical Society, Michigan League Ticket Office, 734-764-2538, and online at ums.org.

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Last summer, Elizabeth “Libby” Seidner, a University of Michigan senior studying flute and instrumental music education, spent five weeks with the San Francisco Symphony as a University Musical Society/University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance 21st Century Artist Intern.

Among the many takeaways from her experience: Innovation is central to both mission and music-making at this extraordinary American orchestra.

That message rang out loud and clear on the San Francisco’s visit to Ann Arbor, in 2012, when “American Mavericks” were the focus of its concert series at Hill Auditorium under UMS auspices.

But even the more-traditional programs the orchestra brings as it returns for a two-day UMS residency Thursday and Friday (Nov. 13-14), provide evidence of the orchestra’s desire to “surprise, delight and reaffirm the audience,” as Seidner put it. At a San Francisco Symphony concert, she noted, there’s almost always “something new and something that made you glad you came.”

The something new on Thursday is something old: Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, written in 1904-05, which forms the entire program. Though UMS has treated patrons to a lot of Mahler over the years, no orchestra has ever performed the Mahler Seventh on a UMS program.

Mahler and all his works are old friends at the San Francisco, however, where Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (familiarly known as MTT) has made a specialty of the composer.

The Seventh is not the most popular of Mahler’s symphonies, which number nine, with a 10th unfinished. San Francisco Symphony General Manager John Kieser remembers how in college, he and his friends were wild for Mahler, crazy for the “over-the-top emotion” they heard in his works. “But of all the Mahler symphonies,” he said in a recent phone call from San Francisco, “my least favorite was the Seventh.”

“It was quirky,” he said. “I thought, ‘Really?’ Now it’s one of my favorites. I like what MTT says about it: It has everything that you could imagine that goes into music.”

As the Ann Arbor concerts approached, Tilson Thomas took a moment to expand on the character of the music in the Seventh:

“Mahler’s Seventh Symphony,” he said in an emailed quote, “seems to reflect the more psychoanalytical side of musical expression. It’s really a schizophrenic piece, intellectually more advanced than anything else Mahler ever did. There is a real ‘mad-scientist’ aspect to much of it. The finale poses one of the greatest challenges to performers in any of the standard repertory. There are so many starts and stops, changes of direction, profound and utterly trivial ideas, alternating in what is at first a completely bewildering way. It seems as if Mahler is toying with us, enjoying telling us with a slightly malicious sneer, ‘And now for something completely different!’”

You can hear all this – and MTT and the orchestra’s fine translation of it – in a clip on YouTube, from the scherzo of the Seventh, http://bit.ly/SFSM7excerpt.

Friday night it’s hard to decide what’s the main attraction: the guest star, violinist Gil Shaham, in the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2; or the complete and completely gorgeous Ravel “Daphnis and Chloe,” with participation of members of the UMS Choral Union. (The concert also includes Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No. 1.”)

One thing is for sure: neither the Prokofiev nor the Ravel has been a concert staple here. The complete Ravel – as opposed to the suites drawn from the full ballet score – saw a performance back in 1975, by the Boston Symphony and the “Festival Chorus” of the UMS Choral Union.The Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 has had two UMS airings, in 1959 and 1970. So though the Ravel dates from 1912 and the Prokofiev from 1935, it’s fair to think of these as novelties in our local concert halls. If innovation is a hard word to make stick in concerts in which the newest piece is a year shy of being an octogenarian, rarity is not.

And innovation there is aplenty in the events surrounding the two concerts. Previous San Francisco Symphony visits here have had a strong student-involvement component, with master classes and player talks on career issues. But with Seidner’s “embedding” with the SFS this summer, new activities suggested themselves.

The U-M’s Third Century Initiative funded four School of Music, Theatre & Dance summer interns in the new 21st Century Internship program. Each participant received a $4,000 living and transportation stipend for six weeks – parity with the amount interns in the sciences might get and a fabulous deal in the arts.

Seidner went to San Francisco; the three other interns went, variously, to Paris to work with Theatre de la Ville (Flores Komatsu); to New York to work with the Trisha Brown Dance Company (Hillary Kooistra); and to New York to work with Kyle Abraham/Abraham.in.Motion (Sophia Deery). Once back on campus, the students have continued the internship with a one-credit independent study, acting as campus ambassadors for the ensembles through a variety of projects.

“Developing entrepreneurship is a top priority at SMTD,” said the school’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Melody Racine, in a UMS press release. “The 21st Century Artist Internship program is a fantastic hands-on effort that will allow students to acquire critical, real-world skills with some of the world’s greatest performing arts organizations. It’s the ideal complement to our Performing Arts Management minor, and it will make a major contribution to our goal of graduation the future leaders in the performing arts.”

“Right from the start,” of the internship, said Jim Leija, UMS director of education and community engagement, “the communication level goes up ten-fold. We get real-time information from the companies, and it builds excitement within the ensembles as they develop a relationship with the student. There’s more of a willingness to do engagement activities in the community beyond the stage.”

The San Francisco folks didn’t need much convincing. They’re trying to shoehorn in as much as they can from their 3:15 p.m. Thursday arrival – they fly into Willow Run from Kansas City — to their Saturday departure — via bus, for Cleveland.

But ideas Seidner generated through her experience take the residency in new directions. For example, when she learned that some members of the orchestra play in small jazz combos in the Bay Area, she suggested they might work with jazz students at the U-M School of Music.That’s set up for after Thursday evening’s concert. And because she has taught at the Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra, she came up with the idea of having SFS musicians do some coaching of their own with the YYO. That will happen Saturday morning.

“One of the big lessons I learned in San Francisco was how the symphony works with a community partner to strengthen music in the community, not keep it separate in one space,” Seidner said. That lesson, she said, will come in handy as she prepares for a teaching or arts administration job.

Meanwhile, Seidner herself continues to play a part in the San Francisco Symphony residency: She’s the featured speaker at the UMS Prelude Dinner preceding Thursday’s concert; she created a blog for the “UMS Lobby; and interviews she conducted with soloist Shaham and with orchestra players, including clarinetist Carey Bell, a U-M alumnus, were set to go online in early November.

“These are all things that provide different ways into the ensemble for the audience,” Leija said. That’s a big UMS priority, and one that matches up perfectly with the San Francisco’s goal to innovate and take music beyond the concert hall.

Read the original story at MLive!

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