Some thoughts as a man waved a stick in the air

San Francisco Symphony This may not seem to have much to do with Entertaining Welsey Shaw, which I’ll just remind everyone is the story of two types of people who normally never meet—and what happens after they do. But bear with me.

The first piece on last Saturday night’s concert at the San Francisco Symphony was called Radial Play, by local composer Samuel Adams, the son of local composer John Adams. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, who has a very undistinguished parking spot in the hall’s parking lot, by the way, conducted about ninety people as they made strange and wonderful sounds in this energetic new composition. It was touted in the program booklet as the Symphony’s debut performance of the work. The exclamation point was only implied.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen that on a program. I’ve attended more premieres of works than I can count. It’s highly fashionable nowadays to premiere a new work on a concert with well-known pieces, even war-horses if you will. The problem is I never hear the piece again. It’s rare that it’s even recorded. First performances are common. But works don’t usually get familiar from first performances. And it’s the second and third and fourth performances that are hard to come by. Why do you think everyone—even the most musically-challenged person in the world—knows da-da-da-duuuuum ?

It’s true with authors too. There are countless book debuts that end there. Getting the second deal is tough. So many authors have published exactly one book. It is not the loneliest number. It’s sadly common.

Next on the symphony’s program came a piece by Mozart that most classical fans know, the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola. If I could hear one last piece of music before I die, this would probably be it. Exquisite doesn’t begin to describe it. Nothing does. The tyke from Salzburg wrote this unbelievably rich masterpiece when he was just 20.

But he never heard the work again in his lifetime. It got a premiere and was forgotten. It was even worse for Mozart, because at least Mr. Adams has had his work performed before, just not by this orchestra. Still, the odds are slight that his piece will make it into the regular performance schedules of orchestras overburdened with Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mozart (or overburdened with audiences who expect to hear Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mozart over and over).

In Mozart’s time it was also common to have a piece performed once and then see it forgotten, which is why those pre-royalties guys had to write so much in their lifetimes. But as time went on a canon developed, one that has seen itself both expanded as it needed more works and shut down as it filled. Recordings had something to do with this development, allowing for wider exposure to works while at the same time making certain one highlighted for repetition. Fortunately for us, the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, or just good ol’ “K.364” if the formal title is too ungainly, was one of those that’s emerged as a favorite.

That brings me to the third work on the program, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Another popular work today, it premiere in 1944 to a resounding thud—with audiences at least. Critics approved, but five years passed before it became ensconced in the repertoire. Today it’s considered one of the greatest works of the 20th century—and one of the most popular, despite its difficulties.

It sure brought down the house last Saturday night, as MTT blazed through it like a man on fire. Bartok was paid just $500 for this masterpiece, by the way. Think of that the next time Paris Hilton gets $40,000 a night for being a DJ. spacer1

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