Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bible Camp at the San Francisco Symphony

This weeks' concert at the San Francisco Symphony started with the world premiere of "Music in Dark Times" by Steven R. Gerber (above right), a New Yorker who is reputedly a favorite of Russian orchestras for some reason. The six-movement piece, dedicated to Vladimir Ashkenazy (above left), sounded a bit like 1950s movie music for a bible epic, with only the John Adams derived third movement sounding even remotely modern.

This was followed by a fairly awful rendition of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto played by the young Russian Yevgeny Sudbin (above). Though I'm not a big Beethoven fan, there are a few pieces that I love, and this gentle, Mozartean concerto is one of them. Unfortunately, Sudbin pounded the piano as if it were Scriabin or Prokofiev, and as the Opera Tattler wrote (click here), it felt like somebody stabbing a fork into her forehead.

Part of the problem with the first half of the concert is that regular San Francisco Symphony audiences have been getting spoiled lately. For new music, we've had three weeks of Sofia Gubaidulina whose live music was rich, complex, extraordinary. For a piano soloist, we just heard Martha Argerich who is the essence of poetry at the keyboard. Poor Gerber and Sudbin didn't have a chance.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the 1931 "Belshazzar's Feast," the short, campy, completely over-the-top oratorio for bass and huge chorus by William Walton that was featuring the handsome Canadian John Relyea as soloist.

A few of my young acquaintances after the concert looked at me aghast when I told them I'd thoroughly enjoyed "Belshazzar's Feast," but it helps not to take it seriously. (Click here for The Ambassador who felt intellectually molested by the concert.) Through Tim Hollywood, my first live-in lover back in the 1970s, I met a number of interesting old gay men who were personal friends with Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, and so on, and this oratorio was always one of their guilty pleasures.

The piece also sounds like movie music for a biblical epic, but unlike the Gerber, this is the original and Walton went on to a very successful career as a film composer, including the scores for all of Olivier's Shakespeare films from "Henry V" to "Richard III." The symphony chorus did a great job, and I exited in a jubilant mood after the enslaved Jews had once again triumphed over those mean Babylonians.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

Great title.

Sudbin, by the way, has received such rave reviews for his Scriabin recordings that I tore out the reviews for my "keep an eye out for this guy" pile. Sorry that the Beethoven was an apparent misfire -- maybe he chose the wrong piece or the wrong approach. Better luck next time all around.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm so totally with you on this program: the Gerber was a bore, the Beethoven was a bore, the Walton was great silly fun. I was sitting in a very bad place for hearing Sudbin, by the way, orch c-19, so I haven't got much to say about him, but GOD Ashkenazy is bad.

Shawn Ying said...

I shall not make any comment!! :)

Shawn Ying said...

The chorus should have added 30 more voices for this program. I guess next Handel program and our own Choral program would not have the same balance issue. At least I can hope.