Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Column, based on an interview

with Brent Assink, on the new "6.5" Format

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column - October 28, 2005, under headline,"Come to S.F. Symphony for the New Early Show

ONE OF THE fascinations about great classical music is that there doesn't seem to be any limit on how much you can learn about it.

Perhaps hearing a great work of music for the first time is a bit like trekking into a dark cave: You don't quite know what you're in for at the entry. As you progress, however, you discover a bend here, a bump there, and you begin to sense some of its properties. But since caves are usually deep and dark, you can't easily make out exactly what surrounds you � until someone turns on a flashlight or lights a match.

The light might illuminate a seam of glistening quartz coursing along one wall, a cache of bats hanging sleepily from the ceiling, or perhaps a little water bubbling up from an area down a previously unseen corridor. All sorts of contours, colors and objects hidden in the darkness become apparent as a light is shone on them.

That's much like what happens when one first "enters" into a new piece of music. Repeated listenings reveal things unnoticed the first time around. In addition, different conductors usually point out different aspects of the piece. Then, if you read the program notes, you become more deeply aware of the piece's depth and breadth (or lack thereof).

But when some insightful scholar stands before you and tells you just where to look for that gleaming seam of quartz behind the moss, you can have an experience much like that of the cave explorers as the guide steps forth and clicks on his flashlight.

That's what San Francisco Symphony general manager Brent Assink and his cohorts plan for their audiences, both old-timers and first-timers, with the symphony's new "Friday 6.5" series, slated to premiere at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 11. Assink and company will, so to speak, provide a guide with a flashlight to shine into the classical-music cave.

"Since some people might feel themselves under-equipped to really understand a classical concert, we wanted show them a way in," Assink said during a recent telephone chat. "This series will provide a highly interactive format to accomplish this."

Another rationale for the new series is that a number of audience members have said they would like an earlier start time than the usual 8 p.m. A 6:30 beginning allows patrons time for a leisurely Friday evening dinner following the concert, and is also attractive to young professionals and others working in the city as something appealing to do before heading home for the weekend.

"The fact that the six-concert series is already 75 percent sold out is an indication that we're responding to a definite audience need," Assink says.

The early evening's format seems to me a real winner. Each event will last about two hours and will focus on one large, or several smaller, works of music taken from the week's subscription concerts. The first hour will feature an informative, carefully crafted talk, illustrated with relevant musical examples involving the whole or part of the orchestra, and any chorus or soloists needed. The content will be geared to get right at the heart of the work and at the composer's related thoughts and ideas.

"The featured conductors," Assink elaborates, "have been specifically chosen for their communicative skills. All of them � Michael Tilson Thomas, Alan Gilbert, Martin Haselbock, Edwin Outwater, James Conlon and David Robertson � are gifted communicators who know how to connect with audiences."

After an intermission, the work discussed in the first hour will be performed in its entirety.

The first event, at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 11, will feature Robertson as commentator/guide and conductor of Carl Orff's sensually beautiful, thrill-a-minute Carmina Burana, a 20th-century work based upon secular medieval sources. Featured artists include the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, the Pacific Boy Choir, the San Francisco Girls' Chorus, soprano Patricia Petibon, tenor Richard Troxell and baritone Christopher Maltman.

Although California-born, Maestro Robertson was educated at London's Royal Academy of Music, where he studied French horn and composition before turning to orchestral conducting. During his ensuing tenure as music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris in 1992, he gained international acclaim for his exceptional affinity with contemporary music, without sacrificing his skills with the more standard classical repertory. His most recent highly praised local appearance was as SFS guest conductor last May. He is presently in his first season as music director of the St. Louis Symphony.

Other concerts in the "Friday 6.5" series will be Tilson Thomas conducting Stravinsky's Petrushka" and Rimsky-Korsakov's Dubinushka on Jan. 27; Gilbert, with pianist Shai Wosner, explaining and performing Schumann's Piano Concerto and Richard Strauss' Death and Transfiguration on Feb. 24; Haselbock conducting Mozart's Coronation Mass and Haydn's Storm and Miracle symphonies March 10; Outwater conducting, with chansonnier H.K. Gruber and harpist Douglas Rioth performing Gruber's cabaret, Frankenstein!! and Debussy's Danses Sacree et Profane May 12; and Conlon conducting Liszt's Dante Symphony on June 23.

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