Reviews | San Francisco Symphony – Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915″

In an ode to Susanna Phillips returned to San Francisco to join the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas for Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 September 30 through October 3, 2015. Also on the program were Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and the newly commissioned Dispatches by American composer Ted Hearne. Read more from critics and audience members in the reviews below.

For true, old-style nostalgia, Thomas led the orchestra in a sumptuous account of “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Samuel Barber’s serene but heart-tugging setting of James Agee’s retrospective prose poem. With its purling rhythms and ingratiating melodic contours, this is a piece that constantly threatens to lapse into sentimentality. The miracle of Barber’s writing is that it never does; you come out the other end deeply moved, but unsure how it happened. Soprano Susanna Phillips gave a lovely performance — lustrous, clear-eyed and judiciously shaped. Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, in a sleek and ultimately vivid performance, occupied the program’s second half.

(Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, October 2015)

Thus, what is most impressive about Barber’s music is that, while he works with relatively conventional rhythms, he still captures that free flow of Agee’s “unmeasured” words. As a performer, Phillips was at the top of her game in finding just the right stance between following Barber’s musical rhythms and allowing Agee’s words to unfold with the ease of an expressively involved narrator. Leading a reduced ensemble that captured the transparency of Barber’s instrumentation, MTT provided the best possible support for the rhetorical stance that breathed life into Phillips’ interpretation of the text. While it may be that the writing styles of both Agee and Barber are now dismissed as hopelessly out of fashion (if not foolishly sentimental), “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is music with a seriously legitimate and highly expressive core; and both Phillips’ and MTT knew just how to present that core in the best possible light.

The West Coast premiere of Ted Hearne’s “Dispatches,” the latest work to be composed under the New Voices project with joint support from SFS, the New World Symphony (where it received its world premiere), and Boosey & Hawkes (responsible for its publication), involved, on the other hand, a totally different approach to lighting. If Barber’s scale was only slightly larger than that of chamber music, Hearne is the latest of composers to go boldly into the realm of very large orchestras endowed with an abundance of percussion resources. That diversity also extended into the wind section with Catherine Payne adding alto flute to her usual doubling of flute and piccolo and Jerome Simas dividing his time between bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet.

(Stephen Smoliar, The Examiner, October 2015)

Unlike Dispatches, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano and orchestra is all about melody and emotion. With a text by American writer James Agee, this “lyric rhapsody” describes an idyllic summer evening in the South as remembered by a child who is about to fall asleep amidst the sounds of grown-ups, sitting on their porches and talking while a streetcar passes with clanging bells.

Soprano Susanna Phillips, who was born and raised in Alabama, has a strong connection with the imagery in Knoxville from her own memories of Southern summer evenings, and it showed. As if from personal experience and enunciating beautifully, she casually ‘narrated’ Agee’s gently meandering prose over Barber’s lush and evocative orchestral colors, with her soothing and graceful voice. It was absolutely lovely.

(Niels Swinkels, San Francisco Classical Voice, October 2015)

Phillips’ clear, supple voice was only part of the equation. Born and raised in Alabama, she invested every phrase with extra dimensions. Even in moments of silence, a shrug here, a wistful smile there, and subtle body language felt exactly right for the narrative.

Leontyne Price, one of the piece’s greatest interpreters, famously said, “You can smell the South in it.” This American classic springs from James Agee’s prose poem, originally published separately but later employed as the prologue to his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family. Darker than the surface colors, the poem’s subtext alludes to the death of Agee’s father when the writer was only six years old. Similarly, Barber lost several members of his family while he was composing the score.

Phillips caught these undercurrents, while painting a soft-edged portrait of stillness and beauty. Tilson Thomas drew out a gently rhythmic orchestral shimmer. If at times the balance favored the instruments over the voice, especially when Phillips was using her middle and low range, vocal phrases soared exquisitely when they lifted into the higher register.

The contrast was stark between this music and the opener, Dispatches by Ted Hearne, co-commissioned by San Francisco Symphony, the Florida-based New World Symphony, and the publisher Boosey and Hawkes. Christian Reif, the associate conductor of NWS (where Tilson Thomas is music director), led the first performances in Miami last January, when Tilson Thomas was indisposed, and did so again here.

(Harvey Steiman, Seen and Heard International, October 2015)

If the Hearne premiere was Wednesday’s highlight, the other works on the program also showed the orchestra to excellent advantage.

After “Dispatches,” Reif ceded the podium to Thomas, who conducted a first-rate reading of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” with soprano Susanna Phillips as vocal soloist. Absent from the Symphony’s repertoire since 2008, the rich, evocative atmosphere of Barber’s 1948 score elicited luxuriant playing from the ensemble; Phillips, who boasts a flexible, pure-toned voice, delivered the James Agee texts expressively while effortlessly maintaining the musical line. These days, the word “Americana” is used to describe an amusingly wide variety of music, but this performance registered as Americana in the best sense of the term.

After intermission, Thomas closed the program with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique.” Returning to the beloved score — one that has become a signature work for this orchestra — the conductor elicited playing marked by elegance, rhythmic vivacity and moments of sheer exuberance.

(Georgia Rowe, San Jose Mercury News, October 2015)

The new music was paired with Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Soprano Susanna Phillips gave a crystalline account of the piece, her voice was never overwhelming, but has a brightness that cuts through the orchestra without being harsh. Her face is very expressive. The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, known as Pathétique. Clarinetist Carey Bell played especially well, sounding lovely from top to bottom.

(The Opera Tattler, October 2015)

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