Sunday, February 10, 2008

Behind The Iron Curtain at the SF Symphony

This week's program at the San Francisco Symphony was wonderful. The guest conductor Ingo Metzmacher annually arrives with fairly obscure music programs and makes a case for the music through beautiful performances. Last year he conducted Stravinsky's "Orpheus" and a Mozart "Mass in C Minor." The year before that he came with a full-length, fascinating Schumann oratorio about fairies.

This year he programmed Ligeti's 1974 tone cluster poem written for music director Seiji Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony entitled none other than "San Francisco Polyphony."

It has only been played here once since its premiere, and that was twenty years ago, so it was a more than welcome return. It's beautiful, difficult, fascinating music written by one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century specifically for this city's symphony, and the ensemble is so technically adept these days, that the music sounded both insanely hard and simultaneously like child's play for the orchestra. As my friend Charlie (above) stated, they really should play it live once every couple of years and maybe it will become a perfect corollary to Jeannette MacDonald warbling "San Francisco" as a civic theme song.

Also on the program was one of Bartok's last compositions, his Third Piano Concerto, which he wrote to be a popular success so his wife wouldn't starve in New York after he died in 1945. I didn't know the work at all so it came as a revelation, my favorite new Bartok piece after the "Concerto for Orchestra" written around the same time. Kosman in the "Chronicle" and a few friends weren't that impressed with the performance on Thursday, so Helene Grimaud and the orchestra were either massively better on Friday or I was just in the mood. The performance struck me as extraordinary.

By perfect chance, all the cool musical cogniscenti of the Bay Area had consulted the same astrological chart and seemed to be in attendance on Friday evening, including Sid Chen from "The Standing Room" (click here) who is studying jazz singing and finding it outrageously difficult.

Also attending was Patrick Vaz, who writes the cultural essay blog "Reverberate Hills" (click here) who was attending on his first press ticket with yours truly, and the fact that the seats were so awesome put us both into a bit of a Wayne and Garth haze. The Shostakovich Sixth Symphony after intermission did nothing to dispel my ambivalence about the composer, which basically boils down to loving the Bad Boy Shostakovich ("Lady Macbeth," the First Piano Concerto, a bunch of other music) and being bored by the tragic and serious Shostakovich. The Sixth Symphony couldn't have been a better demonstration, in fact, with its long, sad first movement (spiked by a rhythmic cougher in the audience for its final hushed notes) and the two final movements which couldn't have been more amusing and lively. The orchestra played great throughout.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I went last night, not Friday, and thought it all very good. I know the Bartok piano concertos well but this was the first I've heard any of them live. Liked Grimaud and her lyricism a lot.

Beth Spotswood said...

That's such a cute picture of you!

Nik said...

Oh, I was there on Friday, too. I didn't think Grimaud was too bad, but her playing certainly had a blurry quality to it that I couldn't quite appreciate.

Civic Center said...

Dear mr. ripley: See, everybody who was anybody was there on Friday. And that's a pretty cute picture of you, too, Ms. Beth.

Henry Holland said...

Re: the picture of Ms. Grimaud, two things:

1. What on earth is she wearing? It looks like pants with a cape around them. Not to be all gay or anything, commenting on the fashion.

2. To be all gay, the gentleman 4th from left (with glasses) and the guy tilting his head with the architectural haircut are kinda handsome. Mmmmmm.....pale guys....

Which one are you in these pictures, SFMike?

Civic Center said...

Dear Henry: It's a "Where's Waldo?" kind of thing. Look for a shining bald pate and that's probably me. And as far Ms. Grimaud's outfit, her back was completely exposed which was sort of cool because you could actually see her muscles at work in the rather athletic concerto. I guess Thursday's outfit looked like something designed for women wrestlers on "Project Runway," according to Rita Hao over at SFist.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I would have commented earlier, but I was too amused at the thought of us as Wayne and Garth listening to Ligeti (and frankly, too dazzled at seeing a picture of myself I didn't instantly hate). Yes, I do find Bugs Bunny sexy when he dresses in women's clothing, and I also like the serious and tragic Shostakovich, which is probably not a surprise to you.
Thanks once again for the ticket. I feel somehow more real.

The Opera Tattler said...

I agree with you on the Grimaud performance, it was one of the best piano performances I've heard, and I'm horribly picky about that sort of thing.

Also, I loved her outfit. ;)