San Francisco SO Ives-Kubrick Fete Bizarre, Well Knit

The San Francisco Symphony paid tribute to Kubrick's film by playing Strauss's 'Also sprach Zarathustra.'
The San Francisco Symphony paid tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s film by playing Strauss ‘Also sprach Zarathustra.’
By Jeff Dunn

SAN FRANCISCO — On paper, the assemblage of works for a program by the San Francisco Symphony during the last week of September seemed puzzling, even bizarre — two unaccompanied choral works distributed in a bimodal program honoring Charles Ives and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? There is not enough space to apprehend this oddity. Once in Davies Hall, however, the meaning of the concert became clear: Music director Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, and Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin were out to show they could astonish with anything, from the most difficult to the banal.

Composer Lukas Foss
Foss’ a cappella ‘… then the rocks’ was featured in the Ives tribute.

How often have you been to a symphony concert that began with an a cappella choral work? It was a first for me on Sept. 26, as well as the first San Francisco Symphony performance of Lukas Foss‘ 1978 “… then the rocks on the mountain began to shout” — Charles Ives. Thomas himself hasn’t led many of them, for he forgot to provide a pitch for the chorus to home in on. After holding up his hands for a while, the error became apparent. “I’ll be right back,” he announced, and walked briskly backstage to have the organist intone one. Finally, Foss’ work began, a fascinating series of permutations on a five-note 9th chord sung wordlessly, with varying vowel sounds and relative note emphases. (Unfortunately, the program notes did not mention what the five notes were, or why Foss wrote down only four of them in his written description of the piece.)

Charles Ives, America's iconoclastic composer par excellence.
Charles Ives, America’s iconoclastic composer par excellence.

The energy increases as discernible rhythms and consonants are injected, building toward the last minute of the piece (10 minutes long in this performance), with loud tak-a-tak-a-tak-a sounds. I took this to be the rocks shouting, though the effect was quite muted compared to Foss’ thought behind it: “Perhaps they cry ‘help’ because we do not see we are in danger; or perhaps they merely shout a reminder of what every work of art tries to tell us — that we must change our lives.”

I wasn’t ready to change my life, but was extremely impressed with the virtuosity of Bohlin’s chorus, the tenacity and perfection with which they held their suspended pitches, their control while working inexorably yet moderately toward the climax.

Michael Tilson devised the program honoring Ives and Kubrick.
Michael Tilson devised the program honoring Ives and Kubrick.

Next came a rendition of Ives’ Three Places in New England, ordinarily a concert staple, but transformed not only by superb playing, but also by Thomas’ brilliant idea (first executed here in 1999) of incorporating with chorus the music of Ives’ 1921 song to some of the originally unsung words prefacing the third movement, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” The result (“Contented river! In thy dreamy realm … From every dreamy hill …”) greatly increases the spirituality of the music. We’ll never be able to see with Ives’ eyes the Housatonic River as he did on a magical day with his new wife, but we can see just as he did the first movement’s “The St. Gaudens in Boston Commons.” Too bad, for all the excellent detail in the program notes, the editors neglected to include a photo of the bas relief.

Kubrick with astronaut and viewfinder (
Kubrick. with astronaut and viewfinder. (

After intermission came the three items exploited by Kubrick —  Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube waltzGyörgy Ligeti’s Lux aeterna and Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. It seems fruitless to claim the two halves of the program represented some kind of America vs. Europe comparison, since Kubrick’s American hands have permanently marked our associations with those works. Cynically, I originally saw this part of the program as an attempt to increase attendance, and was ready as the jaded critic to tune out, slumped in my seat before the orchestra began yet another pop rendition of The Blue Danube. I couldn’t have been more mistaken: MTT conjured up hitherto unnoticed and impressive nobility.

The chorus again tackled a cappella difficulties, this time with Lux aeterna. It did the music great justice, as it had with the Foss. Nevertheless, I wished the program had substituted instead the composer’s even weirder-sounding Kyrie (from his Requiem), which Kubrick used to surround 2001’s mysterious monolith. The preceding and somewhat similar sounding Foss took some of the punch out of Ligeti’s Lux, fine as it is.

Strauss’s 'Zarathustra' was integral to the Kubrick film ’2001.’
Strauss’ ‘Zarathustra’ was integral to the space odyssey ’2001.’

The orchestra finished off with Also sprach Zarathustra. Here is a work with some wonderful moments — and defects — as in works of Tchaikovsky. Consider Zarathustra’s opening Sunrise “nature” theme and its insuperable grandiosity. All that follows is necessarily afterthought, much as after the introduction to the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. And at the conclusive-sounding return of the nature theme at the end of Zarathustra’s “Von der Wissenschaft” section, the conductor must keep hands up to prevent the audience from applauding, much as in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

For all Strauss’ structural stitched-togetherness, and ultimately ineffectual attempt to wed affable music with high philosophy, he was a master orchestrator: MTT and his band took to the work’s challenges like Hercules to the Augean stables. Every element came through as cleanly as a piccolo, or Mark Inouye’s perfectly clarion principal trumpet, or concertmaster’s Alexander Barantschik’s strikingly lovely violin solos.

Jeff Dunn writes regularly for San Francisco Classical Voice.