Saturday, May 10, 2008

Bushels of Brahms

At the end of each season the San Francisco Symphony presents a festival, usually two or three weeks dedicated to a single composer (such as Prokofiev last year) or a time and place (Weimar Germany a couple of years ago).

The whole point of a symphonic "festival," one would think, is to present repertory that is not often heard live, either because it requires huge forces or it has slipped through the popular cracks for one reason or another. This year, however, the programming is Three Weeks of Johannes Brahms and his most overplayed masterpieces.

When I bought my first stereo in the mid-1960s with the proceeds from my first job at age 13, the first big musical purchase, perversely enough, was a complete set of Brahms symphonies and overtures with Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, which were being cheaply remaindered because they were in mono rather than in stereo. The reason I bought them was because of the very cool photo of Bruno Walter on the cover of the box and a single-line quote from somebody at Esquire Magazine, saying something like "These renditions are so perfect there is no reason to ever record the Brahms Symphonies again."

And they were right. Bruno Walter himself later re-recorded the Brahms Symphonies with the New York Philharmonic in stereo, but they weren't as good for some reason. In any case, not being a big fan of Michael Tilson Thomas' renditions of Brahms, I wasn't planning on attending any of the programs in the festival, but my friend Charlie Lichtman (above) had an extra ticket and he invited me along to the opening night of the festival, and I'm very glad he did.

The best part of the "festival" ambience is that chamber music is often played an hour before the formal concert, and Thursday started with a woodwind and brass (and a single bass) arrangement for eight players of the "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel" which was completely amusing, particularly since the open seating allowed us to sit in the front row right in front of the octet. William Bennett, the principal oboe player of the symphony, wrote the fun arrangement.

The full orchestra concert opened with the hour-long Piano Concerto No. 2 that had the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes giving a spectacular and sexy performance that featured perfect articulation (according to Charlie) and amazing dynamics that never let the long piece get boring.

After intermission, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the large orchestra in Brahms last symphony, the Fourth, and though it didn't dislodge Walter's version in my brain, it was enjoyable hearing the huge piece live.

My favorite person to watch during the symphony was the young cellist (in the middle, above) who you could tell was absolutely loving the experience of playing this music. At certain moments, his face would break into an uncontrollable grin and his body would start rocking rhythmically. Instead of being distracting, it was totally charming.

No comments: