Old and New

My family had a recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide that I must have listened to repeatedly when I was growing up in Palo Alto. But it was not until a couple of Thursdays ago, when I attended the San Francisco Symphony‘s partially acted concert version on January 18th, that I first heard it live.

The effect, at least in the first act, was galvanizing. One’s childhood musical experiences are stored at the deepest level of memory—within the body as well as the mind, it seems—and so hearing the overture was like being rocketed back to my own past and at the same time given a huge gift in the present. Throughout the entire first act, I kept happening on moments of recognition, which reached a high point in Cunégonde’s extravagant coloratura-laden solo. Meghan Picerno, the soprano who sang and acted that role, was certainly the outstanding performer in the evening’s production (though others ran a close second, particularly Michael Todd Simpson as Dr. Pangloss/The Narrator), so her skill and charm may have had something to do with my pleasure. But it was also the music of the solo itself, whose complicated, syncopated, Spanish-inflected rhythms felt as if they were an innate part of me, both unexpected and completely expected at once. Listening to it was almost like dancing: it seemed that kinaesthetic, that palpably embodied.

Candide premiered on Broadway in 1956—a resounding failure, at the time—and it must have taken about a year to produce the record, so I would have been at least five by the time I first heard it, though the memories feel much earlier. As I say, only the first half of the music was familiar to me; perhaps my mother (the performance fanatic in our household) never turned the LP over to play the second side. If so, she was right: Bernstein had just enough musical inspiration to produce fifty percent of an excellent operetta, but not a whole one. Still, it would be churlish to complain about such a vein of riches, even when it’s buried within baser materials, and I am grateful to the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas for mining it out.

Meanwhile, all throughout my California childhood another composer was working locally and, to me, invisibly, though often at the same high level as Bernstein. This was Lou Harrison, who was born in 1917 and died in 2003. He was still alive when I first became aware of his work—through Mark Morris’s use of his music as the setting for some of his liveliest dances—and I even watched Harrison take a bow onstage after one or two Morris premieres. Since he died, Lou Harrison’s reputation has only increased, and last Wednesday I heard a marvelous concert of his work, hosted by the pianist Sarah Cahill as part of San Francisco Performances‘ Pivot festival. The pieces on the program ranged from the 1941 Song of Quetzalcoatl to a 1988 piano piece, A Summerfield Set, and included a variety of instrumentation, from a standard string quartet to a series of home-made percussives made up of automobile brake-drums, cake pans, rice bowls, and so on, supplemented by imported exotic instruments like gamelans and finger-drums. Many of the instruments were made by Harrison himself, as William Winant, the leader of the featured percussion group and a longtime friend of Harrison’s, endearingly explained to us. “Where did those rice bowls come from?” Cahill asked him between pieces. “Lou’s kitchen,” Winant answered, “so that’s why the tuning turned out that way.” “And the cake pans?” “Also Lou’s kitchen.”

The musicianship was superb throughout, and so was the feeling in the room, which included old friends and colleagues of Harrison’s as well as new San Francisco converts to his music. Every piece was interesting in a different way. Perhaps my favorite was the String Quartet Set of 1979, movingly played by the Alexander Quartet—but I also loved the Threnody for Carlos Chavez and the concluding Varied Trio. As I said to my companions when we were walking away from the Strand Theater (located along one of the more insalubrious stretches of Market Street), it was the kind of concert that made me feel patriotic about being a Californian.

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