At the San Francisco Symphony on Friday the 17th, there was the third of four performances of an interesting sounding program that consisted of "Russia," a short 1864 Symphonic poem by Balakirev, the world premiere of a piano concerto by an expatriate South African composer named Kevin Volans, and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.
The resident music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, was conducting and the piano soloist was a Montreal virtuoso named Marc-Andre Hamelin, for whom the concerto was written.
I have never heard anything by Balakirev before, but after the "boring tour of Russia" as the guy sitting next to me characterized the overture, I'm not sure I need to hear anything else. It sounded like subgrade Moussorgsky.
There was a funny juxtaposition, though, in two sentences following each other in the Symphony's program notes about the composer:
"If he [Balakirev] had flirted with drawing on folk music previously in his concert compositions, he now went at it with a vengeance. Shortly thereafter, however, Balakirev experienced a nervous breakdown."
The world premiere piano concerto was named "Atlantic Crossing" by its composer who became an Irish citizen in 1995.
"The sea voyage from Ireland to America has always held a special place in the hearts of the Irish. The hope of a new life, the escape from the Great Hunger -- all of these are associated with this journey, more than any other. This gave me an image with which to start the piece, although it is not to be regarded as program music."
Still, the image helped set the stage for a wonderful new piece of music that sounded like sort of a mixture of John Adams at his best and Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety" piano symphony and a voice that is all Volans' own. Plus, it had Bongo Drums!
The piece looked fiendishly difficult to play for both the soloist and the orchestra, and I can't praise Hamelin, Thomas and the entire orchestra enough. One was able to distinguish most of the insane time signatures, and even when the writing was at its densest, the performance allowed one to take in every detail. Plus, the slow lyrical section in the middle, after the crazed beginning, was unashamedly beautiful.
Like John Adams, Volans is something of a minimalist in his use of repeating patterns but like Adams he's very much a "post-minimalist." In the program he explained it this way:
"My idea of good compositional technique lies in choosing the right note for the right instrument at the right moment. This is what Morton Feldman called "artistry" -- an instinct for making the right moves. What was a good idea last week may be a bad idea this week. What's good at the beginning of a piece may be bad in the middle. If you choose the wrong notes at the wrong moment, you're wasting (y)our time."
"More interesting for me than what is usually called "craftsmanship" is the continual adjustment of grammatic structure to suit the material -- the vernacular. Hence, in part, my interest in African art and music. The beauty of the work is not in any underlying system but in its irregularity, in the continuous variation of detail and adjustment of scale to suit the material. This is what one could call in more commonplace terms its hand-made quality -- a quality notable by its absence in minimalism."
After intermission, Michael Tilson Thomas proceeded to conduct a surprisingly shoddy and vulgar performance of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony.
Part of the problem was that the piece had been programmed only last March when it was conducted by the great cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich (click here to read my write-up from that definitive performance).
So here's an idea for the next "Keeping Score" television show. Rostropovich conducted this work in March 2006 with the San Francisco Symphony and MTT conducted the same work with the exact same orchestra in the same hall eight months later. Why did the two performances sound so radically different? In the Rostropovich version you could hear, feel, and think through a journey that made some kind of brilliant sense. I walked out of the hall convinced I'd heard one of the great pieces of music ever written. In the MTT version, most of the phrases were lovely on an individual level but they felt senseless when put together. It was just one stupid effect after another that bored and deafened me by the end.
There was signage posted at the grand staircase, by the way, at Davies Hall advising patrons that their presence in the lobby and the auditorium implied their consent to being photographed, videotaped, and recorded for every possible use by the San Francisco Symphony.
This seemed rather presumptious, but since I do the same thing on this blog, there's no room to complain. I'm wondering, though, if somebody was adamant about not giving their permission whether or not they could get a refund from the box office.
Speaking of the box office, they no longer sell the dozens of $20 Center Terrace "rush" seats two hours before the performance anymore. All Center Terrace seats are now purchased in advance and they're $25. However, even though the Symphony hasn't publicised this very well, there are still $20 rush seats, except now they are for the expensive seats that haven't sold in less popular programs. The "rush seats" are sold on the day of performance (box office opens at 10AM) and there is a "Rush Information Hotline" at (415) 503-5577 which will tell you the night before how it's looking for the next day's availability.