Friday, March 07, 2014
Diabolic Music at the SF Symphony
The San Francisco Symphony is holding a series of tune-up, farewell concerts this weekend before taking off on a Grand European Tour of Birmingham, London, Paris, Geneva, Dortmund, Luxembourg, Prague, and Vienna. I am both envious and exhausted just looking at their schedule with a Mahler Third Symphony in one city, Ives and John Adams in another, and Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique in another.
It is the Prokofiev and Berlioz which is being played this weekend, and the Thursday matinee opener was surprisingly wonderful. Prokofiev himself characterized the four strains in his music as "classical, modern, motoric, and lyrical," but I'd call it a duality of angelic and diabolic, light and dark, soft and hard, yin and yang. Most composers work with contrasts, of course, loud and soft for instance, but Prokofiev's music seems to embody duality in its very essence, which is part of what makes it so distinctive.
Prokofiev wrote his First Violin Concerto in 1917 before the composer hightailed it out of revolutionary Russia via a Trans-Siberian train, a boat to San Francisco, and a sojourn in the United States. The concerto was eventually premiered in Paris in 1923 with Igor Stravinsky of all people making his conducting debut. It's a great piece, and I don't remember ever having heard it live before, which was half the fun. The soloist was Julia Fischer above, who was spectacular. The professional violinist sitting in a seat behind me was similarly impressed though she thought the opening phrases "should have been more beautiful."
Tilson Thomas conducted the orchestra in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique in 2007 in a performance that I wrote about unhappily (click here). The conductor didn't seem to understand how to convey the eccentricity of the wild young Berlioz and the performance was simply bland, which was the ultimate disservice to the diabolic, opium-fueled programmatic symphony. On Thursday, either Tilson Thomas has taken my criticisms to heart (yeah, right) or he's grown into the music. In any case, the orchestra gave an exciting and yes, eccentric, performance that made the music appear almost as weird and revolutionary as it must have sounded when it was written in 1830 by the love-sick Romantic, Hector Berlioz, announcing himself to the world.
There are three more performances, on Friday and Saturday evenings along with a Sunday 2PM matinee. Click here for tickets.