Friday, December 01, 2006

Expatriate Russkis at the Symphony

The very famous Russian expatriate pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy is in town this week conducting the San Francisco Symphony in an all-Russian program.

The first piece was a 15-minute United States premiere by another Russian expatriate, a 36-year-old named Victoria Borisova-Ollas who lives in Sweden. Called "The Kingdom of Silence," it was sort of a post-minimalist version of the modern Slavic mystics like Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki, and it was altogether beautiful.

Unfortunately, both the beginning and the end of the piece were extremely quiet and delicate, which meant that it was difficult to ignore the cacophany of coughing audience members that seem to be so plentiful during the holiday season.

Also unfortunate was Joshua Kosman's review of the piece in the "San Francisco Chronicle" this morning where he wrote: "The opening and closing chapters are stretches of tinkly landscaping from a snow globe music box. In between, the orchestra gathers itself into big crescendos, then recedes, in neat alternation. None of it makes much of an impression."

Ignore him. It was a wonderful piece of music that I wanted to hear again immediately.

Following "The Kingdom of Silence" was Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," which the composer wrote in 1934 after he had moved to the United States.

Whether you know anything about classical music or not, you've heard "Variation 18" in the piece, one of the most voluptuous and overplayed tunes of the 20th century. In fact, its inclusion in the Reader's Digest Condensed Music 10-album set which belonged to my grandfather was one of my first doorways into classical music.

It was performed by a 27-year old Macedonian named Simon Trpceski with insane aplomb, making the virtuosic "Atlantic Crossings" of a couple of weeks ago look almost like child's play.

I had never heard it played live before and it was completely amusing.

After intermission was the San Francisco Symphony premiere of Tchaikovsky's Symphony #3, The "Polish," which is the unloved stepchild among his six symphonies.

It was easy to hear why, as the long piece meandered all over the place in five movements, ending with a finale so over-the-top that the audience roared rapturously at its final crescendo.

Still, it was fun to hear something new from an overplayed composer, and there were moments such as the fourth movement Scherzo that were amazing. There are $20 rush seats available for this evening's Friday concert at the box office, so if you're in the mood, do check it out.


Anonymous said...

Simon Trpceski - what a pianist! Ashkenazy can be happy to know there is fresh blood coming after his own legend. I've seen Simon several times (last one with the NYPhilharmonic and let me tell you, that's a new Rachmaninoff in a Macedonian skin. Glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Great. I respect both your and Joshua Kosman's opinions. Now what do I do?

Civic Center said...

Dear Robert: Music is so subjective that there's really no right or wrong opinion. I tend to agree with Kosman more than not but there are times when you can tell he (and most professional newspaper critics) aren't in the mood for one more frigging concert that they have to review.

This leads to writing that fits in with the Henry Cowell quote on your blog, "The notion that criticism must be vitriolic and destructive in order to be intelligent and interesting is an utter absurdity fostered by professional word-jugglers."

In any case, hope to meet you at the Other Minds Festival next weekend. I'll be the one taking not-so-surreptitious photos.

Anonymous said...


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