Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Symphonic holiday treats


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Music for a City, Music for the World: 100 Years with the San Francisco Symphony, by Larry Rothe (Kindle Edition, $28.99)

It has been almost a year since we first read and reviewed Larry Rothe's marvelous history of the San Francisco Symphony, Music for a City, Music for the World. As one of the brightest candles on the Orchestra's centennial birthday cake, the big and luxuriously bound hardcover edition, filled with hundreds of interesting illustrations and anecdotes, quickly made it to the top of our must-read list.

If there was any complaint to be made, it was simply about the sheer heft of the weighty volume. An elegant oversize coffee-table book seemed a bit anachronistic in 2011, but the value of having such a comprehensive (and highly diverting) chronicle available for constant reference made the old-fashioned format acceptable. The size and quality of the publication also allowed for easy exploration of the many well-designed graphics and absorbing photos.

I wouldn't want to be without the big book edition, but after an unsuccessful early attempt at making Music for a City available digitally, it is has finally become available as a Kindle eBook. At last I can pack it for my daily commute, and even make notes without a worry of damaging the pages. Having a smaller copy to hold and carry has also allowed for more frequent visits to Rothe's invaluable history.

The only downside is the loss of some of the book's impressive visual impact. All of the pictures remain and (as far as I can tell) all of the original text. I wouldn't want to be without either edition. Music-lovers, life-long fans of the SFS, and American history buffs will find Rothe's remarkable accomplishment irresistible. Taking a trip with him from the storied days of the rough-and-ready Barbary Coast to the well-manicured present-day corner of Van Ness and Grove remains endlessly informative and entertaining.


American Mavericks: Cowell, Harrison, Varese (SFS Media, Hybrid SACD), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (SF Symphony Store, $18.98, and Apple iTunes, $9.99)

Here is another chance to savor the San Francisco Symphony in a variety of formats. Exuberant live recordings of some of the Orchestra's most revelatory performances from the American Mavericks concerts are now available on Super Audio Compact Disc or for digital download (mastered for iTunes). Anyone with an interest in American composers and the cheeky radicalism of their unfairly neglected work in the 20th century will find a lot to enjoy in the sonically spectacular program.

MTT's championing of all the included composers comes to exciting and authoritative life on a well-filled disc that should open a lot of minds (not to mention ears). I especially like the Henry Cowell selections. The opening Synchrony, with a haunting extended trumpet solo from Mark Inouye (sinfully unlisted in the booklet), is subtly influenced by Stravinsky, but still has the composer's own stamp on it. The Piano Concerto, with Jeremy Denk making a stunning impression, displays the trademark tone clusters that made such an impact on others and eventually became Cowell's claim to fame.

A major and delightful insight comes from Lou Harrison's Organ Concerto. In typically big and vibrant manner he synthesizes Western and Asian classical traditions into a uniquely satisfying showpiece. There are many moods and lots of big gestures, and organist Paul Jacobs is eminently up to the task. So, too, is the orchestra and MTT. Harrison's sound world is gloriously captured in a recording of wide dynamic range and unbelievably crisp sonics.

The final track is Ameriques by Edgard Varese, and there is no denying the importance of the piece or the power of the performance. It does raise the question of which format to purchase, however. Hard to imagine that wailing siren or those riotous climaxes at full volume for the neighbors' sake, but then, hearing a downloaded version with earphones could be also prove a little problematic for your own hearing.

Again, there is an argument for going with both versions. The recording is worthy of a place in any SFS fan's library or that of anyone with an interest in American composers, and the download is a steal at half the price.

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