I went to the last two concerts of the San Francisco Symphony’s regular season. First up was a rather odd assemblage featuring this year’s Project San Francisco performer, Yuja Wang. She’s brilliant and poetic and everything you dream of hearing, but there’s already some concern over what seems like a surprising number of injury-related cancellations for such a young woman. She has commented before that she over-committed herself in the past few years, so I hope she’s learning to pace herself better.
The first half was all Bartok, which is certainly fine by me. We had the brief orchestral Rumanian Folk Dances, which traverses a surprisingly wide sound-world in about ten minutes. The symphonic sound is almost hilariously luxe for these peasant dances. I enjoyed it.
In fact I ended up enjoying the whole concert quite a bit, even though I was tired and would rather have been home. But sometimes you walk in only because you’d already spent the money for the ticket before you realized how tired and irritated you would be that particular day and you’re pleasantly surprised. I was also expecting the worst from the audience but I was pleasantly surprised there too. I was in the front row, very far right, which even I, a lover of the front row, thought was a terrible seat, and behind me was a large family that I guessed was only there for ethnic uplift (“See! If you practiced more like Yuja, you could be a soloists too!”), the worst of all reasons for hearing an artist. Before the concert all five children were busily playing with various electronic devices. The girl at the end was loudly snapping her gum every few minutes. But they were remarkably considerate during the performance, and I managed to slip into an empty seat closer to the center, so I was already predisposed to think things were going well.
Wang came out to play the Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in a startlingly short dress. She’s a petite woman and when she sat down at the Steinway it blocked her almost entirely from the view of those of us in the right-hand front row. All we could see were her naked legs working the pedals. Her dress was so short that it couldn’t be seen at all from this view – just the bare legs. It was kind of distracting. I shut my eyes and enjoyed the performance.
The second half was music from Act 3 of Swan Lake, which seems like one of those season-end oddities that Michael Tilson Thomas throws on the schedule because he feels like it, and sure, why not? (These things make me think of a young married couple I knew several years ago who were having dinner at some hotel and next to them was a friendly slightly tipsy couple celebrating some milestone anniversary. The older woman had balloons tied to the back of her chair and wished the young couple well, saying with a smile, “I spell it H-A-P-P-Why the heck not?” So, yeah, why the heck not? When else is Tilson Thomas going to get to conduct Swan Lake?) Sometimes these things don’t turn out so well (witness the disastrously amplified Iolanthe from a couple of years ago). I did find this was one of those occasions when Tilson Thomas starts the orchestra off sounding just a bit too loud and insistent, but I love Swan Lake and was happy to hear it – as I said, the concert was putting me in a receptive mood – even without the doomed dancers.
Afterwards Wang came back on stage for a brief interview with Rik Malone followed by questions from the audience. She had put a pair of jeans on under her dress, which handily was now a top. She seems rather quiet and shy and was rather charmingly and oddly puzzled that there were so many questions about the piano. Other than her remarkable skill with that instrument, she seemed much like many of the other young women in the audience. She mentioned several times that she was interested in fashion.
When asked about her favorite pianists, she mentioned Grigory Sokolov, Andras Schiff, and Ivo Pogorelich. When asked about piano pieces that should be better known she mentioned the Bartok piece she had just played and the Ligeti piano concerto. When asked what her favorite fish was, she said salmon. (A young man said that his girlfriend’s mother had taken her to an aquarium when she was a little girl and was (who knows why) horrified when the little girl wanted to ask the aquarium lady what her favorite fish was. This became a family joke and since his girlfriend’s mother had brought him to the concert, he wanted to ask the fish question. So it was kind of a cute question, though Wang seemed a bit nonplussed by it. But she was a good sport and played along.)
Apparently the injury that led her to cancel some of her Project SF appearances was a burn caused by boiling water when she tried to make tea. Malone mentioned that the year before he had asked Tilson Thomas if there was anything Yuja Wang could not do, and the reply was, “Cook.”
The week after I was back at Davies Hall for Beethoven’s strange and magnificent Missa Solemnis. The performance and even the piece itself proved controversial (click here for Lisa Hirsch’s summary and collection of links and comments). Apparently there was quite a bit of variation from performance to performance, particularly with the soloists. I heard from reliable sources that I caught Christine Brewer on her best night, but there were still some rough as well as gleaming spots. Gregory Kunde sounded a bit dry throughout. Bass Ain Anger and mezzo Katarina Karneus were consistently appealing. I don’t think this is an easy sing for anyone. The chorus was beautiful, but the sense of struggle and difficulty is I think just built into the way this music is supposed to be experienced.
Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik’s flowing solo during the Benedictus was applauded by some of the audience, which I have to admit kind of shocked me, not just because it’s sacred music and I have an almost atavistic feeling that you don’t applaud during a mass but because it seemed sort of beside the point, as if we had just witnessed some coloratura firework-display. The music here isn’t about the flash of virtuosity.
(There seems to be a semi-silly debate going on now about when to clap. I don’t see why the rule for that should be different from anything else: don’t do anything that might disrupt other people’s experience. “First do no harm” is a good rule even outside of the national parks.)
The program note by the late Michael Steinberg mentioned how deeply Beethoven studied his baroque predecessors in composing this piece, and while listening to it I was struck not just by his need to revert to the perhaps more muscular archaic sound of his predecessors but by his embrace of a baroque aesthetic of surprise: you’re never quite where you think you are here, and when you expect grand vistas you come across intimate grottoes, and vice versa. (By the way, click here to read a wonderful piece by Jeremy Denk on Beethoven’s structural humor. This is exactly the sort of technical but understandable description that non-musicians need but seldom receive. And I love that he wrote this about Beethoven, who is not normally considered one of music’s humorists.)
Anyway, I found the performance perhaps imperfect but no less moving for that reason, like those unfinished Michelangelo sculptures of the Pieta or the slaves that are all the more powerful to modern eyes for lacking final polish or balanced shape. Then I left Davies Hall and almost immediately saw a young man on his way to some street party wearing a T-shirt that said “I [heart] rim jobs” because it was “pride” weekend and that must have been what he was proud of.