Sunday, February 10, 2008
Behind The Iron Curtain at the SF Symphony
This week's program at the San Francisco Symphony was wonderful. The guest conductor Ingo Metzmacher annually arrives with fairly obscure music programs and makes a case for the music through beautiful performances. Last year he conducted Stravinsky's "Orpheus" and a Mozart "Mass in C Minor." The year before that he came with a full-length, fascinating Schumann oratorio about fairies.
This year he programmed Ligeti's 1974 tone cluster poem written for music director Seiji Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony entitled none other than "San Francisco Polyphony."
It has only been played here once since its premiere, and that was twenty years ago, so it was a more than welcome return. It's beautiful, difficult, fascinating music written by one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century specifically for this city's symphony, and the ensemble is so technically adept these days, that the music sounded both insanely hard and simultaneously like child's play for the orchestra. As my friend Charlie (above) stated, they really should play it live once every couple of years and maybe it will become a perfect corollary to Jeannette MacDonald warbling "San Francisco" as a civic theme song.
Also on the program was one of Bartok's last compositions, his Third Piano Concerto, which he wrote to be a popular success so his wife wouldn't starve in New York after he died in 1945. I didn't know the work at all so it came as a revelation, my favorite new Bartok piece after the "Concerto for Orchestra" written around the same time. Kosman in the "Chronicle" and a few friends weren't that impressed with the performance on Thursday, so Helene Grimaud and the orchestra were either massively better on Friday or I was just in the mood. The performance struck me as extraordinary.
By perfect chance, all the cool musical cogniscenti of the Bay Area had consulted the same astrological chart and seemed to be in attendance on Friday evening, including Sid Chen from "The Standing Room" (click here) who is studying jazz singing and finding it outrageously difficult.
Also attending was Patrick Vaz, who writes the cultural essay blog "Reverberate Hills" (click here) who was attending on his first press ticket with yours truly, and the fact that the seats were so awesome put us both into a bit of a Wayne and Garth haze. The Shostakovich Sixth Symphony after intermission did nothing to dispel my ambivalence about the composer, which basically boils down to loving the Bad Boy Shostakovich ("Lady Macbeth," the First Piano Concerto, a bunch of other music) and being bored by the tragic and serious Shostakovich. The Sixth Symphony couldn't have been a better demonstration, in fact, with its long, sad first movement (spiked by a rhythmic cougher in the audience for its final hushed notes) and the two final movements which couldn't have been more amusing and lively. The orchestra played great throughout.