Friday, April 12, 2013
Keisuke Nakagoshi and Blomstedt at SF Symphony
Herbert Blomstedt (above right), the 85-year-old Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, started his annual two-week guest conducting stint Thursday afternoon. The large orchestra was playing together for the first time since their recent strike, with a new contract near but not yet ratified as of this writing. (Update: The 26-month contract was ratified this Saturday morning.) The program consisted of Wagner and Beethoven warhorses sandwiching a wild piece of music from 1963 called Poesis by the 92-year-old Swedish composer Ingvar Lidholm.
The Tristan und Isolde Prelude and Liebestod from the beginning and the end of that five-hour Wagner opera started the afternoon, and the Prelude was an exquisite reminder of how good Blomstedt is with this orchestra in certain composers' music. The Liebestod was similarly impressive, but an Isolde-less orchestral version doesn't work for me. The fat lady needs to sing, no matter how well the violins are taking her line in the reorchestration.
After the Wagner, the stage needed to be rearranged and a grand piano brought in from downstairs. This usually takes over fifteen minutes, which is not the stage crew's fault as much as it is the designer of the stage elevator which moves at a slow, Wagnerian pace. For the first time in my experience, the conductor used this down time to give an introductory lecture about Poesis that was equal parts amusing and instructive.
Though Blomstedt is known for his conservative style and choice of repertory, he also stays in touch with contemporary music and in fact conducted the premiere of Poesis in Stockholm in 1963. He started his introduction by telling us what not to listen for. "Do not expect any melodies, or pretty harmonies, or any identifiable rhythm. What you have instead are sounds that make interesting music." He then proceeded to imitate and sing all the strange sounds we would be hearing from the orchestra, and it was an extraordinary bit of mimicry. "The sandpaper percussion doesn't go whoosh-whoosh-whoosh like in a Latin dance band but is more like a stray mushroom in a forest that appears here and there without any discernible pattern. And I must warn you, near the end all the different sections of the orchestra build to a crescendo that is unbearably loud, but it doesn't last very long so don't worry about it."
During the introduction, he introduced the piano soloist Keisuke Nakagoshi above and said, "There is a long cadenza in the middle of the piece for piano that is mostly improvised, and Keisuke in rehearsal has been doing the most amazing things. He plays as much inside the piano as on the keyboard, and he can pluck a string in the piano and then echo it perfectly on the keyboard, which is almost impossible. I don't know how he does it."
The pianist and composer Keisuke Nakagoshi above was making his San Francisco Symphony debut after Robin Sutherland backed out of the assignment recently, and he was a perfect choice for music that requires a composer as much as a virtuoso pianist. I have been watching Keisuke for years at SF Conservatory concerts, as a rehearsal pianist with Opera Parallele, and as half of the twenty-fingered ZOFO duet. He's always struck me as something of a musical genius who can play anything and make it sound interesting. It was heartening to see such a successful debut on a large stage, as he let loose with forearm tone clusters, delicate piano string strumming, and everything in between. Plus, his modified Mohawk was rocking.
After intermission, the orchestra played a measured, beautiful version of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica. Though the predominantly elderly women who attend Thursday matinee concerts are a savvy, attentive audience, there are a few downsides, and one of them is the ubiquity of piercing little signals that are coming from hearing aids. As my friend Charlie wrote me, "The cacophony of hearing aid tones was unfortunate for the Wagner, actually fit right in for the Lindholm, but was downright maddening during the Beethoven, especially during the second funeral movement."