The San Francisco Symphony and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas — who played the dedicatory gala at the Mondavi Center in October 2002 — will return at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 27, for another visit, as part of the Mondavi Center’s 10th anniversary events.
On the program will be Gustav Mahler’s sprawling Symphony No. 5 — a 75-minute piece that features five movements, organized into three parts. Alongside the Mahler will be the West Coast premiere of a new work by young composer Samuel Carl Adams called “Drift and Providence,” which was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and the New World Symphony in Miami (where the piece was premiered under Michael Tilson Thomas in April).
Mahler’s symphonies have only occasionally been heard in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall. They typically require a huge ensemble, they are typically pretty long, and as a result, they are not typically the sort of music than a major orchestra takes on tour. But Mahler is a specialty of the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas — between 2001 and 2009, they recorded the complete set of Mahler symphonies (plus a few other large-scale works) at Davies Hall in San Francisco. Several of the disks won major awards. A 17-disk box set has been issued by the San Francisco Symphony on its own label.
The Mahler Fifth was composed during the summers of 1901 and 1902. It was premiered in 1904 in Cologne (with the composer conducting). Mahler continued to work on the score until at least 1907 and perhaps as late as 1910, making a number of changes and revisions. Mahler died in 1911. The Fifth Symphony opens with a funeral march, followed by a sprawling Scherzo. The most famous movement of the piece is the fourth, marked Adagietto — it is sometimes played on its own in concerts that mark the death of a famous person, or a time of national tragedy. Leonard Bernstein conducted the Adagietto at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 1968 as part of a memorial to Sen. Robert Kennedy, who had been assassinated a few days before in Los Angeles on the night Kennedy won California’s Democratic presidential primary.
Composer Samuel Carl Adams (born 1985) wrote “Drift and Providence” during the spring of 2011 and the winter of 2012. The score took shape “in numberous inconvenient locations,” according to Adams, including coffee shops in Brooklyn, hotels in Taiwan and a cabin in the Sierra Nevada not too far from Truckee (during a snowy part of winter). Adams took the score with him wherever he went, “there were a lot of cups of coffee and hard work sitting at a desk” involved in completing the piece. Adams said that working on the score at the remote cabin was “really interesting, being completely immersed in the snow and the silence of that landscape.”
Like the Mahler Fifth, “Drift and Providence” is organized into five movements, but Adams piece is much shorter than Mahler’s, by about 20 minutes. Two of the movements, “Divisadero” and “Embarcadero,” loosely reference the urban landscape of San Francisco.
The piece includes an electronic component — Adams will handle that portion of the music with his laptop computer. “I will be offstage, processing electronic sound. It is a little more like sound design than electronic performance. It’s very, very subtle.” In other words, the role of electronics in Adams’ piece probably won’t resemble past performances by the San Francisco Symphony at Mondavi with composer/electronica expert Mason Bates, who has appeared onstage with the orchestra, and whose computer generated sounds are pretty prominent.
This will be Samuel Carl Adams’ first visit to the Mondavi Center, but audiences here have heard his father’s music in the recent past. In 2010, the St. Louis Symphony (under conductor David Robertson) performed John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic Symphony” in Jackson Hall, drawing on music from the opera “Doctor Atomic” (which was staged several years ago by the San Francisco Opera). In March of this year, the San Francisco Symphony also premiered John Adams’ “Absolute Jest,” a quasi-concerto for string quartet and orchestra that references Beethoven, among others. The upcoming performance of Samuel Carl Adams’ “Drift and Providence” mark one of those very rare occasions where an orchestra has featured new works by living composers who are father and son.
Samuel Carl Adams grew up in the Bay Area. As a high school student about 10 years ago, he attended the California State Summer School of the Arts (which was run for many years by the late Rob Jaffe, who lived for many years in Davis). “That was a really great summer,” Adams said. “I had been primarily a classical musician, studying bass and piano. When I was at the California State Summer School for the Arts, I started to play jazz bass,” which opened up his eyes to a number of musical possibilities. “It was a really exciting time for me,” he said.
Adams now lives in New York (specifically Brooklyn’s ethnically diverse Crown Heights neighborhood) but continues to think of himself as a West Coast composer. “I’m drawn to the West, and what it feels like to be here … the physical landscape, and being able to see 50 miles into the distance, which doesn’t happen very often in myopic New York City. I just feel closer to the West Coast way of envisioning things. I am an intuitive composer and a very physical composer, I grew up near the ocean and walking in the mountains.”
Adams will be discussing “Drift and Providence” as well as West Coast music in a pre-concert talk at 7 p.m. Tickets for Thursday’s 8 p.m. concert by the San Francisco Symphony are $55-$99 general, $27.50-$49 students, www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.