14 November 2009

Symphonic Quickies

I followed up my trip to the San Francisco Symphony’s season opener Mahler 1 by going to the Mahler 5 two weeks later. In between there was what sounded like an extremely odd evening of musical bits interspersed with chat from Michael Tilson Thomas and Thomas Hampson, both of whom like to talk to their audiences a little too much for my enjoyment. This sounded like a dry run for one of the Symphony’s upcoming let-us-explain-the-music DVDs, and I was hearing Hampson in recital the next week anyway, so I had no problem skipping this.

I have to admit that though I basically liked the performance of the Mahler, I also had flit through my brain a few times the notion that it was a lot longer than I remembered. (Check here for SFMike's interesting take on this concert.) I usually attribute such thoughts to exhaustion and allergies (or allergy medications), but I had remembered the Mahler 5 being about an hour, and the performance took about an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s like seeing skin stretched so tight that you can see every vein and muscle underneath, which can be interesting but perhaps too Mannerist in effect. When I got home I pulled several Mahler 5s off the shelf (or the floor or the table or whatever bare level surface I'd scattered CDs on) and though there were a couple as long as the one I’d just heard, the majority were indeed about an hour. I have previously noted Tilson Thomas’s tendency toward the monumental, and I think the slow tempi here were part of that. It's an approach that sacrifices the wilder, more grotesque side of music but displays the strength of the structure, like seeing the echoing arches of a Gothic cathedral but none of the gargoyles or ornamental capitals.

The real highlight of that evening turned out to be the relatively brief Hymnos by Giacinto Scelsi, a composer of whose eccentricities I had heard but whose music I hadn’t. Tilson Thomas gave a little talk beforehand, in which he mentioned being with Berio at a rehearsal and meeting Scelsi, who, when a photographer took his picture, grabbed the camera, smashed it, and then immediately apologized and paid for the damage. He didn’t like having his picture taken. Well, I sympathize; I’m not particularly photogenic, and I’ve often wanted to smash cameras. Hanging out with Berio and Scelsi . . . this is a side of Tilson Thomas that I don’t think we usually see at the symphony, despite what I consider his exaggerated reputation for adventurous programming, which usually takes the form of little pieces as preludes to the main event. The Scelsi was a real discovery for me, using fairly simple materials but all just slightly off-balanced so that it was vibrant rather than monotonous. Off to the CD-mongers!

I had thought the two Mahler concerts might be it for my symphony-going this fall, since there were a lot of other things going on and not enough money for any of them, and most of the Symphony’s programs were in that vague area where I’d be happy to hear them but not particularly upset if I didn’t. But I did end up hearing Osmo Vanska's performance of John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and Dvorak’s 7th (big thanks to Mr G/S Y for giving me his ticket). Antti Siirala was the soloist in the Tchaikovsky, rather than the previously announced Yundi Li, who disappeared from the schedule sometime after the season brochures were printed. I thought Siirala gave a fine and robust though perhaps not overly poetic performance. I had a fidgety child behind me and a fidgety old woman beside me, so at the intermission I moved to an empty seat a few rows away to enjoy the Dvorak in peace.

It was one of those evenings that I enjoyed a lot and I don’t really have much to say beyond that. I read somewhere that Orwell once remarked that the most difficult thing about working as a book reviewer was inventing reactions to books that didn’t make him feel much of anything one way or the other. But then I don’t write reviews of concerts, I write reviews of attending concerts.

There are symphonies that I have sort of memorized, just through frequent exposure, but of course many more that are just vaguely familiar, and I try to avoid the trap of comparing a performance to a record I have playing in my head – if I wanted it to sound like something I already knew, why wouldn’t I just stay home and play CDs? So I’m usually OK with most interpretations, because, as with wrong-headed staging of plays I’m familiar with, they force me to notice and to think about why I expect certain things. I get that deer-in-the-headlights uncertainty when someone asks me if I “know” a piece, because I don’t know quite what that means – have I heard it? Could I hum along? Have I grasped its structure? Have I grasped its truth? It’s the same way with books – I “know” certain books in that I’ve read them, but I always scrupulously feel that unless I’m totally immersed in the text the way the author was when he or she wrote it, I can’t truly say I “know” the book. And depending on how many years ago I read something, I may, from a technical, historical viewpoint, have read it, but can I still claim to know or even remember much of it? . . .

And then I went back Friday before last before Semyon Bychkov’s Rachmaninoff program. The first half was his setting of Poe’s The Bells (in Russian translation, where it sounds less jingly, at least to a non-Russian), and then we had the Symphony No. 2 in E minor. I bought a rush ticket about an hour before the concert started, which was $20 well spent, and I had a great seat on the right side of the orchestra. I had only bought rush tickets once before; it was the previous season, and I wanted to hear Emanuel Ax playing Szymanowski’s Symphonie concertante for Piano and Orchestra, because how often do you get to hear that?

Well, it was one of the Friday concerts that they start at 6:30, which you’d think I would be crazy for given my constant bitching about 8:00 start times, but it turned out to be just a bit too early to get anything to eat and a bit too late for me not to have to kill time before the performance started. Also, for some reason at these concerts (I assume due to some misguided notion of making symphonic music less utterly terrifying to the twitching timid rabbits who have assembled) they drop a piece of music and substitute conductor chat, so that the concert isn’t actually any shorter, it just has less of what you’ve come for.

In this case the dropped piece was the overture to the Magic Flute, which I have indeed heard many times before, but I wouldn’t have minded hearing it again, especially since the little talks tend to be nothing specific or technical about the music but just general cultural and biographical background, which is the sort of stuff I usually know anyway, and if I’m going to be exposed to stuff I already know, I’d just as soon have it composed by Mozart.

So I was in an open seating area up behind the orchestra (where the chorus sits when they perform), which is how I discovered how uncomfortable those seats are – as in, throw your back out uncomfortable. Once again, I suffer for Art, which barely knows I exist. I also discovered that when you sit up there and there’s a soloist, you have an entire orchestra, including the brass and tympani, between you and him, and there’s a reason he’s normally in front of the whole shebang, especially when it's a refined player like Ax. But still – Szymanowski live! Followed by Strauss’s Burleske in D minor for Piano and Orchestra and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini.

I had tried for a rush ticket for another concert last May, since the amazing Yuja Wang would be playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, and we also had a new piece by Mason Bates and the Sibelius 4, but even though I went to the box office early, at lunchtime, there were no rush seats, though fortunately for me and the Symphony’s finances there was one excellent orchestra seat available, for which I more or less happily paid full price.

I liked the Bates piece (The B-Sides), especially the first few movements, but then we got a lot of taped noise and a steady thumping bass of the sort that annoys me to the point of insanity in pop music. And I have a vague memory that there was a lot of fooling around with electronic equipment before we could get started, which used to drive me crazy at pop concerts and I haven’t gotten any more patient with the years (have I ever mentioned my theory about patience? You’re born with a certain amount, and when you use yours up, it’s cranky to the end). So I was positive on Bates but still unconverted on electronic music. And Wang is phenomenally good – so wide-ranging in her moods and effects.

The Rachmaninoff program was among other things a chance to hear the terrific Symphony Chorus. Last May I went to the all-Handel program conducted by Bernard Labadie, and since I’d been pondering the uses of subscription series and how many I should keep, that concert really brought home one of the joys of subscribing: reluctantly going to something only because you bought a series and the ticket was included, and then discovering or rediscovering how wonderful something can be. I’ve always loved Handel, but I have to say I was not exactly thrilling at the thought of sacrificing an evening (after being out on so many of them already) to hear Zadok the Priest or the Dettingen Te Deum. But there it was, a joyful noise before the Lord. I don’t think any composer does magnificence better than Handel: that grandeur, that pomp without pomposity.

In addition to the Chorus, the Bells featured soloists in each movement: soprano Nuccia Focile, tenor Frank Lopardo, and bass Mikhail Petrenko. (Gosh, I remember when Lopardo had hair, and it was black . . . how like the Marschallin one feels at times!) I had heard a recording of The Bells once or twice, but I think I had never heard a note of the 2nd Symphony. So when it comes to “knowing” these pieces, as discussed above, I feel pretty secure in saying this was all new music to me. It’s very vivid and rich and varied. (And it was a relief to be in an attentive audience for once at the Symphony, and not to spend the first half looking for a refuge for the second half.)

But there was a moment or two during the hour-long symphony when its lush beauty almost backfired for me; I thought, this is what people wish the soundtrack to their lives was like: richly and fully felt, passionately engaged, deep and arching and complete even in its sadness. And I understood, despite my genuine pleasure in the music, why the nerve-jangled modernists, their world shattered by the global wars, could not accept this music as appropriate to that world.

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