Friday, February 01, 2008

Ashkenazy at the San Francisco Symphony

Vladimir Ashkenazy (above), who debuted with the San Francisco Symphony as a piano virtuoso 50 years ago, turned to conducting in 1990 and this week is offering a mixed bag of works that were for the most part lovely and bland until the end of the program.

First up was a new piece written by the 79-year-old Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (try pronouncing that name quickly) which was commissioned by the Julliard School in New York for their hundredth anniversary in 2005. It was a three-movement work called "Manhattan Trilogy," which was a pleasure to listen to, though it certainly didn't invoke how I envision Manhattan. Rautavaara started off writing twelve-tone serial music, but made a switch later in his career to more conservative, tonal music with a slight edge to it. In the program notes, there's a great quote from him: "If an artist is not a Modernist when he is young, he has no heart. And if he is a Modernist when he is old, he has no brain."

Next up was the beautiful 1880 Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch, which is essentially his third violin concerto. It was being played by a tall, handsome young Canadian violinist named James Ehnes.

He played with taste and sensitivity throughout, which is unfortunately not what this schmaltzy, fabulous music requires.

I moved to the Center Terrace from the Orchestra section after intermission because the troll pictured above was sitting next to me and kept shining his penlight on his program throughout the concert which was totally annoying. When I asked him to please stop doing it, he mumbled, "Shut up! You talk too much!" in an accent that was straight out of "Eastern Promises."

The second half started with Respighi's "Fountains of Rome," a warhorse I never really need to hear again, followed by the French composer Albert Roussel's suite of music from the second act of his full-length 1930 ballet "Bacchus and Ariadne." The latter was sensational music, beautifully played, and made me want to hear the entire score, preferably with ballet dancers flying through the air. How about it, San Francisco Ballet?


Anonymous said...

That Rautavaara line about Modernism was originally about Socialism--in that form it's at least pre-WW2, maybe even older.

Civic Center said...

Dear rootlesscosmo: Thanks for the clarification. I thought the phrase was too good to be totally original.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

There's also a variation about poetry, but unfortunately I can't remember who said it, except I think he was French: "To be twenty and a poet is to be twenty; to be forty and a poet is to be a poet." I have to say that makes more sense to me than the modernism line -- why is it brainless to be a modernist (whatever that specifically means) when you're older?
Sympathies on the troll -- I once sat next to an asshole who was writing in his elaborately decorated journal the whole team. He threw his scratchy pen down in anger when I gestured for him to stop.

Civic Center said...

Actually, Patrick and Cosmo, I think the composer was making a bit of a paradoxical joke in the manner of Oscar Wilde writing in response to the maxim "Time is money" with "Time is a waste of money."

In other words, Rautavaara was probably referring to the "Socialism" maxim, which makes more sense than "modernism," and just throwing it on its head.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I filed about an hour ago, and while I think you're right about what the Bruch needs - heart on sleeve - I also think that Ashkenazky was so dull he could have killed anything.

Unknown said...

Wow. I generally identify and agree with all of your reviews of the SF Symphony and SF Opera, but for once I do not. I haven't enjoyed myself so much in such a long time. Perhaps it was the Saturday performance vs. Friday performance? All I know was that my experience on Saturday was incredibly gratifying.

Civic Center said...

Dear serg0007: Actually, it was a Thursday afternoon performance, but I'm glad your Saturday performance was wonderful. That happens more often than is commonly admitted.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I was at the Friday performance and zzzzzzz. My companion agreed that it was on the dull side, but he also had a better time than I did.