Summer has always meant high temperatures and low expectations so I was happily surprised when I encountered the San Francisco Symphony in one of their “pop” programs this July. And the orchestra, which I hadn’t heard for several years, was in fine fettle, with Edwin Outwater, who serves as Director of Summer Concerts, on the podium, with African mezzo Angelique Kidjo, as its powerhouse headliner.
Pairing Gershwin with summer is hardly a stretch, but hearing a performance of a suite from his landmark Porgy and Bess (1933), which included “Good Morning, Sistuh !”, “Catfish Row”, and “Siummertime”, was a great pleasure because Gershwin’s orchestration is clean and supple and there were all kinds of felicities in the playing. from the seductive turns in the first and second violins, the band-like contributions of the brass –oddly positioned next to the double basses and above the cellos — and winds and the super alert percussion. San Franciscans have looked down their noses at Hollywood for years — yes this is a hugely self-satisfied town — but the orchestra played with the fervor and panache of Hollywood’s great studio orchestras of the 50’s — say the Fox one under Alfred Newman —.and who had ever heard a cover of “Summertime ” sung in the Yoruba language by Angelique Kidjo who entered regally from stage right in a brilliant African costume.
The friend I went with told me I looked startled when Outwater announced that the next piece on the program was by the “famous composer Philip Glass”, and then the symphony launched into a US premiere performance of his Ife::Three Yoruba Songs (2013) with barely a nanosecond break possibly because this was a very long concert. Whatever the case the opening moments seemed tentative perhaps because like many US orchestras — the SFS has never programmed one of Glass’ big pieces due to MTT’s disdain no doubt — the demands of Glass’ musical language are foreign to them — or because I hadn’t heard it before.
It starts softly and grows in rhythmic complexity, but as always with Glass the effect is natural, and makes sense to the ear. Glass’ feeling for proportion and timing is rock solid, and his writing for orchestra is that of a master. The horns — with Mark Inouye, principal — muted and open — make mysterious or visceral sounds, the architecture everywhere firm, instinctive, but completely thought out, from the bare figures in the cellos which start the second song –“Yemandja ” — ” I am the mother of the River / ” to loud massed raise the roof sonorities provided by the full band which includes six very active percussionists on everything from bass drum, to snare drum, and slap stick.
Glass has a long history of setting arcane languages, like Egyptian in Akhnaten (1983); Sanskrit in his Gandhi opera Satyagraha (1979); dead languages like Latin in the CIVIL warsS — a tree is best measured when it is down (1983); and the native Brazilian language Garani in his massive chorus cum orchestra Itaipu (1989), and the three Yoruba songs here, as there, are songs about the creation of the world. His approach here was more intimate and directly emotive, and you didn’t have to read the provided texts to sense that something powerful was going on, Kidjo’s singing was gestural and of an operatic splendor, and the audience rose to its feet at the end.
A set of Kidjo songs occupied the second half of the concert. The singer held the audience in the palm of her hand with her charm, and in our deeply cynical age it was inspiring to hear someone say that our similarities are far more important than our differences. The Buddhist tenet — ” the idea that we are separate is an illusion, and not a fact ” — came to mind, and the acoustic guitarist Dominic James partnered Kidjo beautifully, his sound sometimes suggesting that of the West African kora ala Foday Musa Suso. Kidjo strode through the aisles at the end and got everyone singing. The second half was long, but as Mae West once quipped ” too much of a good thing can be wonderful. ” And wonderful it was.