Monday, December 12, 2011
A Tale of Three Symphonies 3: San Francisco
The final subscription concerts of the year for the San Francisco Symphony took place last week before Davies Hall becomes all-Christmas all-the-time through December. It was a challenging program, starting with a 1906 Sibelius tone poem Pojhola's Daughter, followed by the two-year-old Violin Concerto composed by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the evening's conductor, and topped off with excerpts from Gotterdammerung, the final opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle.
Salonen, above right looking like a Finnish version of Seiji Ozawa in middle age, has been astonishingly successful over the last couple of decades, gaining praise in all quarters for his conducting while music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years and then further praise for his own compositions. The opening Sibelius was wonderful and made me wish Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony were playing something more substantial by the composer.
The American violinist of the moment, and a MacArthur Fellow to boot, Leila Josefowicz above has been playing Salonen's violin concerto all over the world for the last two years with the composer conducting. It appears to be an insanely difficult work for a soloist who seemingly gets about two minutes of rest in the entire thirty-minute piece, often sustaining the entire sound with discreet backing from the huge orchestra. "How do you memorize something like that?" my friend Charlie wanted to know. "And how do you enter this music? It sounds like it was written for Martians."
I didn't find the busy, glacial, strange music all that difficult, but it was way too dense to absorb on a first hearing. I should have listened to the piece on YouTube ahead of time (you can do so by clicking here). In any case, it felt like a privilege hearing a composer and original soloist performing an ambitious work live.
After intermission, we were offered three raw, bleeding chunks from Wagner's five-and-a-half hour Gotterdammerung, including Christine Brewer above singing Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene at the end of the opera. Though Wagner opera excerpts have been symphony concert staples since the late 19th century, it still felt strange listening to this music completely divorced from the context of the opera house stage, particularly since the San Francisco Opera had presented a stunningly good "Ring" production five months ago across the street.
"This is a concert version! It's supposed to sound different than the opera house, and besides, I prefer Christine Brewer's tone to Nina Stemme," Goangshiuan next to me argued, to which my articulate reply was something on the order of "Bosh!" For the record, the performance by Brewer and the San Francisco Symphony under Esa-Pekka Salonen was just fine, but they didn't even begin to efface the memories of Nina Stemme totally commanding the San Francisco Opera stage this summer, or Donald Runnicles conducting a superb San Francisco Opera orchestra in the same music.