Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ligeti, Poulenc and Prokofiev at the Symphony

My favorite box-office person in the Civic Center, Meredith Clark (above), has set up shop in the lobby of Davies Symphony Hall and it was a joy as usual to see her on Sunday afternoon. It's too bad the San Francisco Ballet, where she worked for 17 years, has decided that the internet should be the only way people get tickets rather than providing a fully staffed box office. (Note to Ballet: It doesn't work.)

Alex Ross at "The New Yorker" has written an amusing account of how audiences have behaved over the centuries at music concerts and notes that serious, quiet and rigid routines are of recent vintage. He describes the usual cookie-cutter approach to programming a classical music concert as the following (click here for the whole article):
"The modern classical-music performance, as audiences have come to know it and sometimes to love it, adheres to a fairly rigid format...The evening falls into two halves, each lasting around forty-five or fifty minutes. An orchestral concert often proceeds from overture or short tone poem to solo concerto, and then to a symphony or some other major statement."

That sums up last week's San Francisco Symphony concert perfectly, except the formula felt fresh and exciting because the music and the performances were so good. The "short tone poem" was the 1967 "Lontano" by Ligeti, which was beautiful and hugely delicate. Unfortunately, the music barely survived the Sunday matinee crowd's incessant coughing which sounded like a tuberculosis ward.

This wasn't a problem for the 1932 concerto for two pianos by Poulenc played by Katia and Marielle Labeque (above). They performed the same piece in May 2006 and I'd be happy to hear it again in 2010 as it is Poulenc at his very best -- by turns witty, mysterious, and exuberant.

The sisters returned for an encore of some delightful bit of nonsense which nobody at intermission seemed able to place.

The second-half symphony was Prokofiev's #5, written at the end of World War Two, and I don't think I've ever heard it before which is a bit like saying you know most of Beethoven's music but have never heard the Fifth Symphony.

Though the music isn't to everybody's taste (Lisa Hirsch wrote "Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is about the most clattery, repetitious, overlong excuse for a symphony I have ever heard"), I loved every moment of it, and the performance reminded me that Prokofiev is one of the oddly underrated composers of the 20th century. Bring back his operas, San Francisco Opera, please.


jolene said...

"San Francisco Ballet...has decided that the internet should be the only way people get tickets rather than providing a fully staffed box office."

WHAT. Is this a new development?

There's one picture in here that made me smile. :) Thanks for including it.

What are the Labeque sisters wearing?? That's a lot of look for two women - perhaps they were inspired by Fashion Week. I believe Poulenc is the piece that was included in SF Ballet's New Works Festival, I would have loved to have been there. It sounded like it was a great program.

sfmike said...

Dear Jolene: No, the ballet box-office staffing is not a new development as it started last year. They only open the box office on performance days from noon on, which is sort of crappy if you happen to want to buy tickets at the opera house on a day when there isn't any performance that evening or afternoon. It's sort of a penny-wise, pound-foolish move.

And yes, the Wyrick photo was for you.

jolene said...

lol thanks! I admire all your photos, some more than others. Top notch musicianship is rare, and always appreciated.

Anonymous said...

The Opera did "Betrothal in a Monastery" several seasons ago and I loved it. (Was Netrebko in the cast? I think so.) A chorus of drunken, greedy, lecherous monks? Mmm, good.

pjwv said...

To me, your comment about the incessant coughing ruining the Ligeti illustrates the main reason why I don't object to the so-called formal aura of concert-going: it's just consideration for others to sit still and keep quiet, and not to assume that your comments or whatever are of more importance than everyone else's desire to listen to music without intrusion. I see many discussions of the alleged problem of formality, but rarely do I see a mention that when you have hundreds or even thousands of people together, you just need some rules. Our society is so basically thoughtless and inconsiderate that I hate to see any form of consideration tossed out.
The Ligeti was gorgeous on Thursday, by the way -- silent audience. . . .