Polish conductor Marek Janowski, currently Artistic Director of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, has been making regular visits to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall since 1990. Over the course of his visits, he has applied his expertise to the repertoire of German music in general and the works of Ludwig van Beethoven in particular to lead SFS in all but two of Beethoven’s symphonies, Opus 55 (“Eroica”) in E-flat major and Opus 125 (“Choral”) in D minor. In January of 2011 he gave two weeks of all-Beethoven concerts, which included the Opus 60 (fourth) symphony in B-flat major during the first week and the very first two symphonies, Opus 21 in C major and Opus 36 in D major on the second. It is worth nothing that these three symphonies spanned a relatively narrow period between 1800 and 1806.
Next month Janowski will return to the SFS podium. This time he will present only a single program, but the emphasis will again be on Beethoven. The interval of time he will cover will be approximately the same but in a different direction, so to speak. He will conclude the program by returning to Opus 60. However, he will begin by advancing about six years forward from 1806 with a performance of the Opus 93 (eighth) symphony in F major, which Beethoven completed in 1812, although it was not performed until February of 1814. To some extent these two symphonies may be taken as framing Beethoven’s “middle” period.
Historians also include Opus 55, which was first performed in 1805, in that span; but that particular symphony is so unique that one can be forgiven for regarding is as an outlier. Many rabid Beethoven fans would probably object, emphasizing that Opus 55 was the first major instance of the “heroic” Beethoven; but, for those more interested in Beethoven as a “professional music maker,” through performances as well as composition, it is that “heroic” status that makes Opus 55 the outlier!
Far more interesting is that both Opus 60 and Opus 93 offer several delightful instances of Beethoven’s capacity for wit, which may be taken for establishing some degree of continuity over the course of that “middle” period. Joseph Haydn was still alive in 1806, and it is not difficult to listen to Opus 60 as the effort of a former student to outdo the best of his master’s past efforts. Opus 93, in turn, can then be taken almost as a memorial to that master, recalling those past efforts but still determined to push them further.
Janowski will also bring a much different historical perspective to the program he has prepared. He will lead SFS in the ensemble’s first encounter with the music that Hans Pfitzner composed for his “musical legend” (the description he preferred to “opera”) Palestrina. Pfitzner composed this work (with interruptions) between January of 1912 and June of 1915. It was first performed on June 12, 1917 at the Prinzregententheater in Munich. Bruno Walter was the conductor.
Pfitzner apparently liked to call himself an anti-modernist. Considering what was happening in the name of modernism during the first quarter of the twentieth century, Palestrina is almost a defiant statement of its composer’s opposition to those trends. The “legend” he had in mind is the famous story of how Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina “rescued” counterpoint from being banned from the rituals of the Catholic Church by the Council of Trent; and it would be fair to say that the parties involved in the Council of Trent figure more significantly in the libretto than does Palestrina himself. (Turning the Council meetings into musical drama might strike some as outrageous, but that is precisely what the second act does.) Each of the three acts of that libretto is preceded by an orchestral prelude, and Janowski will conduct the first SFS performances of all three of those preludes.
This program will receive four performances in Davies Symphony Hall. These will be given at 8 p.m. on Thursday, January 21, and Friday, January 22, and Saturday, January 23, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 24. Ticket prices range from $15 to $165. Tickets may be purchased through an event page on the SFS Web site. They may also be purchased at the Davies Box Office on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street or by calling 415-864-6000. The Inside Music pre-concert talk will be given by Scott Foglesong. It will take place one hour prior to each concert. This event is free to all ticket-holders; and the doors open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Finally, free “Program Notes” podcasts about both Beethoven symphonies hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone will be available for download or streaming from the Program Note Podcasts Web page.