Easing into Max Richter

A conductor leads the way

The conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser pulled a fascinating fast one on his audience at the San Francisco Symphony on Saturday night. Or perhaps more to the point, he pulled a slow one. He was leading a crowd-pleasing collection of short pieces, a dozen total divided in half by an intermission. Midway through the second half of the program, he was due to introduce Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight.” The orchestra had just finished “Duel of the Fates” (minus the choral part), a John Williams cue from the first Star Wars prequel, A Phantom Menance.

To ease from the heavy drama of Jedi/Sith fighting to Richter’s ambient post-classical composition, Bartholomew-Poyser returned to something he had talked about earlier in the evening, how great music can connect to — can express — powerful human emotions. But unlike with, say, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (which the conductor naturally associated with the teenage experience of first love), after the Williams he seemed to go off on a tangent. He talked about how teens often feel “stressed,” and he recommended a “box breathing” exercise to center and calm oneself. Then he led the audience in the breathing exercise, and after cycling through it, he cued the orchestra to begin, while continuing to moderate the audience’s inhalations and exhalations, and the pauses in between. By the time the first few notes of “On the Nature of Daylight” were heard, the audience was fully in step with the piece’s glacial, peaceful pacing. He had prepared us physically and emotionally for what we were about to hear. It was quite a remarkable moment, especially because the audience didn’t know what was going on until after the music had begun.

It might help to understand that the audience on Saturday was largely middle school and high school students, there for a special Teen Night, which served up a range of greatest hits (by Holst, Rossini, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky), adjacent modern favorites (Richter, Williams), and less familiar contemporary spotlights (John Adams, Kev Choice, Anna Clyne, and Arturo Márquez, plus Bartholomew-Poyser himself), as well as George Walker, who fits in none of these categories, but whose gentle Lyric for Strings was quite lovely, and a fine pair to the Richter. Bartholomew-Poyser was an able ambassador for the young audience, and I dare say conductors for adult audiences might consider a similar introduction.

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