Sunday, July 15, 2007

Gaffigan and Denk at Summer in The City

The San Francisco Symphony hosts an annual series called "Summer in The City" that has always had an air of absurdity since it invariably starts on the foggiest San Francisco summer day imaginable.

This doesn't stop management from putting up pictures of sunshine and colorful balloons and so on in the Davies Symphony Hall lobby which only makes the shivering audience look even stranger.

The programming is also rather bizarre, with half of the dozen concerts using the symphony as backup for ancient pop stars such as Neil Sedaka, Johnny Mathis and Patti Lupone. The other half of the concerts are usually a traversal of overplayed, classical warhorses in underrehearsed performances conducted by the Symphony's assistant conductor for noisy, casual audiences.

The only reason I attended on Friday evening was to hear the young pianist Jeremy Denk as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto #23 because I have been reading his witty, beautifully written blog for the last month and wanted to check him out (click here to get to "Think Denk").

Still, I was dreading the actual concert since it started with one of Mozart's most overplayed pieces, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," continued with the aforementioned piano concerto and ended with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, and I was expecting the evening to be sloppy, dull and deadly.

Imagine my total and utter amazement, if you will, when after the first movement of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" ended, I joined the spontaneous applause of half the audience for the new Associate Conductor James Gaffigan, who is 27 years old but who looks to be about 15. He was conducting the music as if it was brand new and was the freshest, most exciting stuff around and the feeling was infectious.

In the Bay Area in the 1970s there was a prodigiously talented young conductor named Calvin Simmons who conducted Mozart with the same youthful love and passion before he suffered an untimely death in a boat accident in the early 1980s, and I haven't heard Mozart's music sound quite so alive since that time.

In fact, about halfway through the piano concerto, which was played with wonderful accuracy and a keen attention to his fellow players by Jeremy Denk, I burst into tears and didn't stop until the piece was over. It sounded both perfect and spontaneous, and I can't remember the last time I heard Mozart in Davies Symphony Hall sounding that way.

At intermission I ran to the side of the hall for a rendezvous with a wonderful marketing woman at the symphony named Louisa, who had set up a photo shoot with Jeremy Denk backstage before he tore off to the airport for a flight home to New York City.

The photos turned out a little crappy (he's better looking in real life), and I felt like a fool gushing to somebody who was slightly dazed from his just-completed performance onstage, but it was a pleasure meeting the virtuoso.

The Beethoven #7 in the second half was conducted by Gaffigan at an insanely fast clip with spiky rhythms that wouldn't have been out of place in Prokofiev. Though I'd rather not hear the piece played this way all the time, the performance was fun, dynamic and genuinely sensational, with new things in the music I'd never heard before which didn't seem possible. There is a free concert at Dolores Park at 4PM today (Sunday) with Gaffigan and the Symphony playing Falla's "The Three Cornered Hat" along with Piazzola tangos, which is highly recommended. There are also two different concerts this Wednesday and Thursday of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky warhorses that you might want to check out. Click here for the San Francisco Symphony website for tickets. Anybody who can make "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" interesting is obviously very special.


Your driver said...

You are, without a doubt, San Francisco's most enthusiastic music critic. You might even be the best music critic. Your reviews are a real pleasure to read.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike- Beautiful photographs, as always, with your very vivid descriptions of the concert. I loved the image of your bursting into tears halfway through the Mozart concerto. What was that about? Was it the tragedy of Calvin Simmons, or something else?
love to you-

Civic Center said...

Dear Sarah: I don't really know WHAT the tears were about. I think it was a combination of thinking about Simmons, the music itself, and also being literally transported to my 13-year-old self listening to Rudolph Serkin and Geza Anda recordings of Mozart piano concertos and discovering that music for the very first time on my own.

And thanks, Jon.

Sam said...

you were right about the knee-highs are really cute.

Anonymous said...


Louisa totally hooked you up! You got to go backstage and see the lounge and everything. Those are great pictures! Denk is so cool to cooperate too. I'm glad you were moved by the music. That program could have been a long night otherwise.