“Short Ride in a Fast Machine”: MTT and the San Francisco Symphony

You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t? This is how John Adams explains the title of his 1986 orchestral fanfare, Short Ride in a Fast Machine. It’s an exhilarating five-minute musical joyride that rests just on the edge of terror. Given its popularity, Short Ride in a Fast Machine must be one of the few pieces written in the last fifty …

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New Release: The San Francisco Symphony’s Debussy Album

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have just released an exciting new Debussy album. The disk features two orchestral showpieces: the three movement Images pour orchestre (the interior movement, Ibéria, evokes the bright, sunny rhythms of Spain) and the ballet score, Jeux. The sensuous, gypsy-inspired waltz La plus sue lente rounds out the album. The performances were recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall. Jeux (Games), described as a “poème dansé” (“a danced poem”), was Debussy’s last orchestral work. It was written quickly in …

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Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz’s Musical Hallucination

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, first heard in 1830, shares some surprising similarities with a teenager’s rock music: It’s shocking, rebellious, and at least partially drug-induced (Berlioz was under the influence of opium). It may have been written to impress a girl (Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827, leading to an infatuation and ultimately short-lived marriage). It deals with the pain of unrequited love, yet this …

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Mahler the Titan: Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler described the opening of the First Symphony as “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.” A seven octave deep “A” emerges out of silence, slipping into our consciousness on the level of pure sound. The high harmonics in the violins seem as natural and fundamental as the white noise of insects in a forest. The motive, which forms the bedrock of the symphony, slowly, searchingly takes shape in the woodwinds. As the …

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Decoration Day

Listen closely to Charles Ives’ Decoration Day and you may hear the lament of the dead.* The piece evokes ghosts of the battlefield and the distant echoes of small town New England observances of Decoration Day, the solemn American holiday of remembrance, started in the aftermath of the Civil War. It’s the holiday we now know as Memorial Day. Decoration Day is the second movement of Ives’ four movement Holidays Symphony, written between 1897 …

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