Saturday, November 17, 2007

Armenian Perfume and Yankee Hymns

Thanks to the goddess Louisa in the p.r. department, I was given a couple of great tickets in the "Premier Orchestra" section for the San Francisco Symphony's mostly Charles Ives program this week.

The concert started with a 15-minute Ives choral piece, "Psalm 90," that was all chorus and no orchestra except for an organ, a few bells, "and low gong." Though it seemed an odd way to open a concert, as if we were about to attend a Methodist church service, it was strange, craggy, and Ivesian music.

The second piece was the overplayed Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, which was being essayed by yet another young phenom, the 22-year-old Sergey Khachatryan.

His appearance brought out a large contingent of Armenians, and unfortunately all the female Armenians decided to douse themselves with copious quantities of their most beautiful perfumes, and after the "Psalms 90," my friend Ellen Toomey and myself moved to another row seeking an olofactory escape.

Foolish us. We ended up sitting directly behind three different Armenian ladies who were featuring even stronger scents, and one of them was even secretly videotaping the concerto performance. Ellen kept her shawl over her nostrils while I tried to breathe through my mouth, but it didn't matter, we were being poisoned no matter how we took in air.

As Ellen said at intermission over a beer, "I'm not usually so sensitive to that kind of thing, but I thought I was going to pass out." We found another section of the theatre for the second half.

Young Sergey was tiny and beautiful and dreamy playing the concerto with his borrowed Stradavarius, but I completely agree with Joshua Kosman at the Chronicle (click here for his review) that it was a boring, lackadaisical performance.

The second half was devoted to the chorus singing five hymns, and then the "Holidays" Symphony of Charles Ives. The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas decided to recite from memory long stretches of prose written by Ives to set the scene before each of the four movements, which became really annoying, as if we were at the "Peter and the Wolf" version of the "Holidays" Symphony. Plus, the musical performance was so astonishingly good there was absolutely no reason to interrupt it with narration, other than the fact that the performance was being taped for the "Keeping Score" series. I don't remember there being a chorus at the very end when I last heard this piece in April 2006 (click here for that post where I got into trouble for calling Ives "a rich insurance asshole in New York City"), but the chorus entrance at the end of the "Thanksgiving/Forefather's Day" section was literally transcendent, and I burst into tears, maybe from all the perfume.


Charlise said...

I noticed that poster of Sergey Khachatryan as I passed Davies on my way to the opera, and thought to myself, I bet the Armenians are out in full force. How nice to hear they were! Too bad about the perfume though, how horrid.

namastenancy said...

I "hear' you on the perfume. I think that perfume today is more chemically based or at least, can be more toxic. I never thought it would happen to me but now, when I'm near somebody drenched in a strong scent, my eyes tear up and my nose starts watering and my throat starts to close. One of the guys that I used to work for seemed to bathe in the stuff; you could smell him coming and going. He never seemed to notice my symptoms when I was taking dictation but eventually, the ICU nurses had to talk to him because the perfume (!?) was causing problems with the premies.

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Shawn said...

Originally we were supposed to sing during the 2006 performance. But the chorus part was cancelled. I actually thought they removed the whole symphony from the program.

The orchestra was so loud. We were not sure whether the chorus was audiable at all. Glad that you actually heard us.

sfmike said...

Dear shawn: When I said I broke into tears at your choral entrance, I wasn't being metaphorical, it was an amazing moment. And though the orchestra was loud, you gave it human, vocal resonance which was what was required. Thanks for confirming that my memory about your absence in 2006 was correct. I wonder why you were added/subtracted.

Shawn said...

Wow! It was just last year and I hardly can remember details. I think SFS was going to be on the tour to NYC with the program. And maybe it would be too expensive to hire a chorus in NYC? So, the choral part was removed? Wasn't the program also suppose to include Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and got cancelled due to her health? 2006-07 season was quite busy for the chorus. It was Vance's last season and we did a few major pieces that year. Carmina Burana, Mahler 8th, Verdi Requiem, Babi Yar, Oedipus Rex, Mozart Mass. Plus Messiah and Lord of the Rings. Wow! Compare to that, the season is basically nothing. :)