Thursday, July 19, 2007

Blogger Night at The Symphony

The San Francisco's "Summer in the City" continued on Wednesday at Davies Hall with a "Classical Romance" program. It consisted of three rather schlocky pieces, Tchaikovsky's "Romeo & Juliet Overture," Richard Strauss' tone poem "Don Juan" and Rachmaninoff's fiendish Piano Concerto Number Three, the one that drove Geoffrey Rush insane in the movie "Shine."

These summer concerts used to be held in Bill Graham auditorium in the Civic Center, with very inexpensive seats in the balcony and tables on the main floor where you could bring picnics and bottles of wine, but those "people's concerts" are long gone, and the ticket prices now are almost as expensive as the regular symphony season.

However, I didn't need to worry about buying a ticket on Wednesday evening...

...because I had been invited by the Symphony PR associate Louisa to a free "Bloggers Night at The Symphony," complete with cookies and coffee in the press room.

There are a number of good local writers who have blogs dealing with classical music, and I've come to know a few of them personally, but none of my friends were invited which seemed very odd.

Instead, the crowd seemed to be a really strange mishmash of people who just happened to have a local blog...

...and since most of them tend to be extreme introverts anyway, it was an odd little gathering.

Though I loathe nametags in general, this was one of the few times they would have actually been helpful.

When I asked Eddie Codel (click here for, one of his many great sites) if he actually listened to classical music, he smiled and shrugged, "Hey, anything to get me out of the house."

What the marketing people didn't seem to understand about blogs is that the best of them are literal nodes of information that radiate to a wider community of interest, such as the ones hosted by the couple meeting in person for the first time (above), the San Jose oboeist Patty (click here for Oboe Insight) and the San Francisco singer and cultural clearinghouse M-C. (click here for The Standing Room).

The conductor James Gaffigan was brought in for a short Q&A at intermission and admitted that these concerts were fairly underrehearsed for lack of time, but the orchestra was so good that it didn't matter.

Maybe it doesn't matter for Mozart and Beethoven, which a smaller ensemble played beautifully and freshly the previous week, but with the huge forces required for Wednesday's composers, the orchestra sounded sloppy and all over the place.

The young Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez, with her blonde ponytail flying around during the entire Rach3 Concerto, looked disconcertingly like a Mexican TV talk show hostess and her playing was all wrong for the difficult piece, with way too much mechanical precision and not an ounce of Russian poetry.

It didn't help that Gaffigan and the orchestra seemed to be playing an entirely different piece than Ms. Martinez, and at wildly differing tempos. Oh well, it was still a fun evening, the cookies were delicious, and I now feel officially co-opted.


momo said...

I've added The Standing Room to my blogroll because I enjoy his writing so much. I should check out your other links--thanks.

Matthew Hubbard said...

Co-opted with cookies! It's delicious, troubling and fun!

When I worked in the video game business, I was in a position with a small amount of power, and people trying to get on the good side of the company would sometimes try to butter me up. National Lampoon wanted Activision to advertise in their magazine (I don't think we ever did), but to that end, they sent me some free junk, including a Black Sox team jacket and several buttons, including one for Politeness Man.

Ah, pointless bribes! They take me back. Now, all I get are copies of textbooks in which I have no interest. It's just not the same.

Anonymous said...

I have the opportunity to talked with some musicians and opera singers that were in the hall, and all of them make me an extremely positive review of the Rach 3. There was also an uncommon standing ovation of at least the 99, 99% of the audience.

I respect the opinions of Mr Sfmike but I would like to know his curriculum and level of expertise to get my own opinion of the credibility of his opinion, because is in the other direction of the people that witness the concert

Civic Center said...

Dear john: No curriculum and no level of expertise other than having listened to a lot of Western classical music all my life. And the Rach 3 is designed for a standing ovation, whether the performance is any good or not, so I wouldn't be taking that too much into account.

If you were there and enjoyed it, more power to you, but I thought it sounded dreadful and my companion for the evening who IS a trained musician on all kinds of levels and owns about 20 different recordings of the concerto, concurred in more ways than one.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mike,

Like yourself I have listened to classical music my entire life, (my wife is a pianist), such as many people that were in the hall, whom were very impressed by the extremely personal interpretation of the Rach 3 Concert.
There is a score written by Rachmaninoff and the soloist creates his own interpretation. You may like this interpretation or not, but if you are attending a concert to find exactly what you hear in the 20 recordings that you have:

1. Why are you going to this concert? Just listen to the recordings, because, in your opinion, they are the best versions of the concert, and new interpretations are unnecessary and impossible to achieve.
2. If you are attending a concert with an expectation, this does not allow you to see good in anything new or different.

A trained and real musician does not need a recording, he needs a score, just as the panel of musician responded in the question and answer round after the concert.

Behind my seating spot at the concert I observed several ladies crying, most certainly they don´t agree with your Lack of Poetry comment.

Civic Center said...

John: I really don't care if you agree with me or not, nor do I care about the crying ladies.

The reason I went to the concert, if you would read the damn post, is because I was invited. And if you would read my reply to you a little more carefully, it was my trained musician friend who has the twenty recordings, not myself, and he had even brought along the frigging score to see which cadenza the pianist was using. He merely confirmed my "uneducated" impression after the concert was over.

Anonymous said...

John and sfmike: It's from moments like this that the phrase, "Audiences and critics agree!" gains its power. Cheers from Chicago.

Anonymous said...

i was at the concert, and i completely agree with sfmike...the piece lacked passion, but of course, this is only my opinion. please do not take it as truth...and I'm very glad some people thought it was amazing.

M. C- said...

my word, john! i promise, it is possible to listen with your own ears and develop your own thoughts while also staying open to others' opinions. when a performance speaks to one person and not to another, the next step is not to evaluate each others' credentials to determine who's more qualified to be The Decider! you say that you respect sfmike's opinion, but from the way you structure your argument, that is clearly untrue.

also, one can love recordings and love new interpretations as well. this has been proven to me time and time and time and time and time again.

ps i knew which cadenza she played without having to check the score. i just wanted it on hand for reference. :)

Lisa Hirsch said...

It's a blogger's or critic's job to listen and report what they heard. Different people hear things differently. I review concerts for SFCV; I try to justify what I say in my reviews; reasonable people can still disagree. Calling for their credentials won't settle who is "right."

If you're wondering whether you trust any given music writer's opinions, read that person over a period of time and attend the same concerts. That'll calibrate you to some extent.

Anonymous said...

It was great! I believe this version of Rach 3, was quite fresh and very complex. The performance was precise, mature... impeccable... full of detail, exquisite, and very sophisticated. With sounds ranging from a whisper to a bolt of lightning, from a calm to a storm, from melancholy to passio, and anguish. The comunication between the soloist and the orquestra was fluid and profound.
In some parts of great velocity, tiny tempo disruptions occurred between soloist and the orquestra, possibly due to lack of rehearsal time. (One source tells me there was a single one-hour rehearsal before the concert!) However I believe we witnessed a real work of art, were we saw the artist´s vision of the concert, without getting away from what Rachmaninoff himself intended in the composition. Many will like it, while some may resist something they are not accustomed to hearing, but only with versions such as this will Classical Music make a true comeback in the world.

While searching online, I discovered that Gabriela Martinez performed this same concert on July 8th, under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. From what I understood with the help of a spanish-speaking friend, reviews were great as well. The following website posts one such review:

Anonymous said...





Last Wednesday, July 18th, I had the fortune to attend Blogger Night at the San Francisco Symphony. Despite having not been to the symphony for many years, this was the third time this year I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing it.
I went in April and to see the a performance in Stern Grove in July.

James Gaffigan, the Associate Conductor, has led the past two performances I've seen, which were a joy. Stern Grove was great for a day to sit and the sun and enjoy time with friends. Attending last week, it was nice to go to a concert with the throngs of bloggers, eager to share information about this cultural event with the world through their own personal lens. I'm not anywhere near an expert on classical/symphonic music, I know that I enjoy it, I know that it's something that sometimes overwhelms me so much, and it's not something I can listen to at work. (Yeah, I've got different musical stylings for different types of work during the day, but generally symphonic music is too distracting for my headspace, which leaves me with punk, twee, indie, folk, and whatnot to get through the day.)
It's always hard for me when I listen to any orchestra, as it reminds me greatly of my grandmother, an accomplished musician and teacher, who played harp with the Orlando Symphony Orchestra. In fact, until I told my brother he could take the entire thing two years ago, I owned half of one of her harps. (My cousin owns the other one of my grandmother's pair.) So, when I sat down last Wednesday, and the symphony began Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, it made me sad, not necessarily because of what the music was saying, but because of what it reminded me of and how much I miss my grandmother.

The symphony followed Romeo and Juliet with Strauss' Don Juan, which Barce felt moved from light to dark. I'm not certain that I agree or disagree, as I was caught up in my own thoughts about my grandmother and the musical adventures of my childhood.

After these first two pieces, we had a brief few moments during intermission to ask a few minutes. Thinking about how I had met most of the bloggers in the room (ahem, social networking), I was curious to know about the social networks that musicians have. I have to assume that the number of, say, first chair violinists, is relatively small. This was confirmed by a member of the orchestra. Several other questions were asked - such as whether or not orchestra members blogged, or interacted with others online. There seemed to be an opportunity for us to bring together some of our expertise, so immediately proposed to our fearless leader, Kevin Smokler, that we conduct a few Nerdcurious salons for them. (I promise we won't let them set up a MySpace account...unless it's to help the Symphony sell a few tickets.)

Lights flickering on and off let us know it was time to return for the finale and piece many of us had been waiting to hear, the elusive Piano Concerto No. 3 by Rachmaninoff, immortalized in the movie Shine. Understanding that there's a huge technical mastery necessary for the piece, I was also surprised by the physical demands, watching Gabriela Martinez sweat her way through it. I will say, her playing styling, engaged and physical, was well matched to James Garrigan's stylings. The two of them are so enraptured with the music they make, it's as if they are trying to make it a part of their physical being. It definitely drew me into the music, but it was almost one of those situations where I couldn't even open my eyes, I was so overwhelmed with the emotion pouring out. Some of the other coverage has critiqued her performance, but I almost feel that it is irrelevant to those us who enjoyed it so greatly.

The post-performance included a q&a session, which I highly recommend attending if you're at the symphony. It was great to hear a young composer (aged 14 I believe) talk about his upcoming performances and to get feedback on how to develop his pitch, as well as hear how long it took Gabriela to begin learning the Rach 3 (she began in April).

Of course, the best part of any such experience is sharing it with friends. A few of us marched off to Sauce for a dessert and treats to discuss art, music, and life.

This isn't the last symphony visit of the year for me, so I hope for as much joy when I return in September to see Mahler.

Anonymous said...

Blogger night at San Francisco Symphony
Jul 21, 2007




James GaffiganOn Wednesday night, July 18th the San Francisco Symphony invited a group of bloggers to attend a very special performance of their "Summer in the City" series. Kevin Smokler was responsible for organizing the event, and I applaud the Symphony for finding new ways to reach out to audiences that may not be aware of what the symphony does, and having the savvy to connect with online communities.

As I see it, there are so many overlaps between audiences- people who are very active online and actively utilize social networking sites, often are also people who listen to and purchase copious amounts of music including live music shows ( South By Southwest is a perfect example of where those worlds physically intersect).

I've always been a lover of classical music; I grew up surrounded by it, raised by parents who frequently took me to opera, symphony, and ballet performances and were always listening to it at home. As a musician throughout my schooling and then as a singer, I've always had an ingrained passion for all forms of music and a heightened appreciation for live performance. For me, going to the symphony or the opera is as natural and as enjoyable as going to see my favorite bands play live. I know this isn't always the case for many of my peers, so during the performance, I kept thinking to myself, "what could I say to the live music lovers, the people with hundreds of gigabytes of music on their computers- how could I convince those who think of classical music as too stodgy, too uptight, too staid or boring for their tastes, that symphony performances are actually a peak experience for music lovers of any stripe?" During the Q&A afterwards, someone asked a question to this effect and James Gaffigan answered that ..."it's about getting people here, it's beautiful music; people are intimidated, they think they have to wear a tuxedo, or are afraid to do the wrong thing at the wrong time, and that's just silly, it's simply not true. There are plenty of young people here. Come once- you'll be addicted!"

For me, the answer came over and over again, throughout each and every flawless rendition of some timeless, dramatic pieces. During Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," as I heard the refrain so familiar to everyone as the soundtrack of countless cheesy romance movies, I nevertheless was compelled by the fresh, emotive version the symphony played that night. Just as in live rock music, each performance of a symphonic piece is different, changed by the musicians, the conductor, the acoustics and a myriad of other factors. One of the exciting things about going to the symphony is this opportunity to hear a new rendition, a fresh interpretation of a well-known piece or a piece that you particularly love.

The highlight for me was the performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Opus 30. The pianist - 23 year old Gabriela Martinez, is a Venezuelan virtuoso. I think one of the bloggers said it best during the Q&A afterwards, that this was "the most caring Rach 3 I have ever heard." It was riveting to witness the interplay between James Gaffigan (conductor), she and the symphony; each had so much passion and emotion literally pouring into their music that it was visible on all of their faces and in their interactions with each other during the piece. I felt even more grateful to be in our prime third row seats at this point, able to see up close each and every expression and movement Gabriela made. It seemed as though she was channeling some divine or inspired energy; she moved her whole body into her playing and just completely blew me away with her dexterity, endurance and virtuosity. She said it only took her 2 months to learn it completely by heart; I couldn't believe she had memorized such a complex piece. I was moved to tears a number of times over the course of the evening, especially during the piano concerto. The whole performance just sucked me in and took me along with it so powerfully that I couldn't help but be so moved!
We are so fortunate to live in San Francisco, and have so many incredible, world class performing arts at our fingertips. The San Francisco Symphony is, in my own humble opinion, one of the best you will ever see anywhere; I've seen symphonies perform from all over the world, and the truth is that I still feel the same way. I sometimes forget that we have this treasure right in our backyard, but this evening re-inspired me to keep going more regularly and bring more symphony virgins along with me.

Post-performance Q&A

Welcome Bloggers!

Anonymous said...

I am in shock, for the disrespectful comments of Mr SFmike to the pianist and their work. You can like or not the work of other, but the comments should be above all respectful. In my opinion the concert was simply great.

Henry Holland said...

John: I really don't care if you agree with me or not, nor do I care about the crying ladies


I had something similar to SFMike's experience about five years ago. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was still at The Dot and they had Lang Lang in to play the Tchaikovsky Bbm concerto. I thought it was appalling stuff from Mr. Lang: stiff, mechanical, no feel for the music at all, no line, just banging through most of it. He played really fast though.

Of course, he got what the great Martin Bernheimer use to call "a push-button standing ovation", while I booed. The woman next to me was surprised but when I told her why I was booing, she thought for a moment and said "Yes, you may be right".

James Gaffigan is gorgeous.

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