I was able to go to at least one San Francisco Symphony concert this fall (big wave of my opera-singer hair to SY, who gave me a ticket); I heard Louis Lortie play Liszt’s Totentanz and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, followed after the break by Alexander Nevsky with Nancy Maultsby as soloist. I was sitting close, as is my wont, so the Steinway sounded a bit harsh, but on the whole I enjoyed the whole thing immensely. I’ve always found the Choral Fantasy very appealing. I once went into a CD store to buy a copy and astonished the clerk by having heard of it. I guess she considered it the ultimate in undiscovered Beethoven. I had heard it live with Peter Serkin and the Boston Symphony, and don’t think I didn’t drop those names on her foot. The Prokofiev made me realize that I’m more used to the soundtrack than the cantata; it veered off at the end from the path I was expecting. It has its weird witty little twists, but it’s great battle music, inspiring yet mournful. I was watching the Director’s Cut of Troy a few weeks ago and I noticed James Horner plundered it pretty freely for the soundtrack.
The playbill had a long article about “guilty pleasures” in music, which I skipped, since there are more than enough sources of guilt in my life without including music among them. For some people some indulgences, usually involving food or sex, have their oh-so-naughty air as the source of pleasure. It seems odd to restrict music in such a way that rousing glittery fortes, even those of such great artists as Liszt, Beethoven, and Prokofiev, are seen as shameful. There’s something deeply thrilling about the immense but organized noise that a symphony orchestra can make, and one of the many reasons for hating artificially amplified music is that we’ve lost the awesome sense of physical excitement that a full-blown orchestra can achieve, so that nowadays it’s not uncommon for people to think that “classical music is calming”. Beethoven, Liszt, and Prokofiev – calm or calming! I like Schoenberg string quartets as much as the next guy – actually, it’s almost certain that I like them a whole lot more than the next guy, depending of course on who the next guy is – but there’s no shame in ripping open the sky. I think of the contemporaries of Berlioz and Wagner complaining about the horrendous ear-splitting cacophony they felt those composers inflicted on the world, and I laughingly wonder what those critics would make of the screeching cars that drive by blasting monotonous thumping so loudly that windows rattle up and down the block.
I was familiar with the music and I could have sworn I was familiar with the musicians, but as soon as Kurt Masur walked out to conduct I realized I had never seen him live before. Unlike most conductors, he’s much taller than I thought he would be. If you’ve never seen a man in his 80s conducting a rousing, vigorous performance of The Dance of Death, then let me tell you it is a beautiful, beautiful sight.