Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bohemian Rhapsody at the Symphony

This week's subscription concert at the San Francisco Symphony was a rousing success, with the American premiere of "Symphonic Variations" by a living Brazilian composer, Almeida Prado, the San Francisco premiere of Bohuslav Martinu's 1943 concerto for two pianos, and the Dvorak symphonic warhorse, Symphony No. 9 "From the New World."

Prado's 15-minute "Symphonic Variations" from 2005 was written for a youth orchestra and dedicated to this week's guest conductor, the Brazilian Roberto Minczuk who currently splits his time between the Calgary Philharmonic and the Orquesta Sinfonica Brasiliera in Rio de Janeiro. The music was both conservative and gorgeous, sounding a bit like late Samuel Barber mixed in with Messiaen and seasoned with Brazilian percussion.

This piece was followed by Martinu's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in a sensational performance by the French sister team of Katia and Marielle Labeque (above).

Though I tend to agree most of the time with Joshua Kosman, the classical music critic in the San Francisco Chronicle, in the case of this music we couldn't be in further disagreement. Kosman, in a would-be bit of humorous bitchiness, writes:
"Martinu's score must have the highest ratio of notes to actual interest of any concerto in the repertoire, which is saying something. The two fast outer movements are unbroken stretches of clangorous display, with both pianists and the full orchestra playing practically nonstop; the lighter slow movement has some beautiful passages but nothing to dispel the surrounding black clouds."

Maybe Kosman was still digesting his dinner or was unhappy that there weren't any cookies in the press room, but for whatever reason he's absolutely wrong about the music. Sounding like a jazzed-up mixture of Bartok, Poulenc and Gershwin, the concerto was one of the most amusing pieces of music I've ever heard at the symphony, in a performance that was genuinely thrilling. It made me want to run to Amoeba Records and buy all things Martinu.

I had never heard the famous Dvorak symphony live before, though I'd heard it at least 3,000 times on the radio over the years. What I wasn't quite prepared for was how every one of the top tunes in the piece has been used for countless movies, television shows, ads, ice skating routines, and media I've probably forgotten.

It may be the most plundered piece of classical music in the repertory, and it was just about impossible to banish all those competing images from my brain. Thursday evening's performance was fairly sloppy, but the intent and feeling for the piece was all there, which is half the battle. Please bring Mr. Minczuk back, with one of Martinu's six symphonies while he's at it.


Ced said...

Just for the records, there were cookies in the press room. Pepperidge Farms cookies.

sfmike said...

Oh, damn, I didn't see them.

Joshua Kosman said...

Bah. I can't be bought for cookies, my friend. And I have nothing against Martinu in general, I just didn't like this piece.

By the way, I wonder if you heard the Labèques the last time they came around, because they had with them one of the most amusing pieces of music I've ever heard at the Symphony: to wit, Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos. Poulenc is funny because he truly doesn't give a shit (in a good way, I mean — he doesn't seem to care whether what he's writing is "correct"). Whereas Martinu — I don't know, all that running around felt like it was covering up some kind of anxiety. That was my sense, anyway.

sfmike said...

Dear Mr. Kosman: Well, I can be bought for cookies, but they never seem to offer them to me. Also glad to hear you don't dislike all things Martinu.

I heard the Labeques doing the Poulenc last year and loved that performance too. Maybe I'm just a two-piano concerto queen, because I love Mozart's efforts too. As for "anxiety" in the Martinu concerto, maybe it had something to do with the fact that in 1942 he was a recent refugee to the United States during World War Two. Or maybe not. For whatever subjective reason, I found the crazed rhythms and textures of the Martinu concerto completely thrilling.

Jerry Jarvis said...

one day maybe you will let me go with you mike.

namastenancy said...

I know how hard it is to listen with fresh attention to something that's been plundered for commercial use but I remember hearing a Sibelius piece played by Sarah Chang some time ago and she brought such passion and energy to the piece that I really "heard" it. I know that it's impossible in our commercial age to keep classics free from the hands of advertising but I sure wish there was a way.