Thursday, April 23, 2009

France and Britain Together at The Symphony

Wednesday night's sparsely attended San Francisco Symphony concert was mostly wonderful, and I'd recommend it highly. You can probably get $20 rush seats for any of the three remaining performances on Thursday at 2, or Friday and Saturday at 8. Call (415) 503-5577 to find out if they are available.

The concert, conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, started with incidental music from the play "L'Arlessienne" which is usually offered as an overplayed suite by the overplayed Bizet, composer of "Carmen." Tortelier (above) decided instead to string together five long segments from the play and they were performed with such style and commitment that I remembered why Bizet is overplayed in the first place. He really was one of God's musically gifted ones.

This was followed by Poulenc's 1938 Organ Concerto, which is one of his stranger, more fabulous pieces of music, ranging in sound from the most serious religious portentousness to sections which seemed to be the basis for Nino Rota film scores. You can almost hear World War Two arriving and wiping out a place in time. The more I hear Poulenc's music live the more I love it, and this particular piece was worth the price of admission.

The young organist Paul Jacobs was the soloist, incongruously seated at his instrument on stage right, which gives sort of a ventriloquist effect. You can see the organist hitting the keys but the sound issues from high stage center. The performance otherwise was great, but his unnamed encore piece went on and on and on until the Poulenc glow dissipated altogether.

Since Jacobs has performed complete Messiaen and complete J.S. Bach organ music marathons in the past, he probably could have happily performed the entire organ works of Poulenc as an encore, but it was still felt inappropriate after the concerto. Most amusing was watching the orchestra trying not to look bored and annoyed as the encore stretched on, with some of their poker faces working better than others.

After intermission, we left France for England and the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, an early 20th century composer who became the Eminent British Figure in Music until Britten and Tippett came along. As long as there is Western classical music being played, Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" and "The Lark Ascending" will always be in the repertory for their sheer beauty, though I'm not sure how much else will survive.

"The Lark Ascending" is basically a short violin concerto with the instrument taking the part of The Lark. It was played by the symphony's Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman (above). She is a wonderful musician but seems to share a fault with most of her other colleagues who occasionally step out of the orchestra to play soloists. They don't seem to know how to go for broke and BE soloists, letting the entire score and orchestra travel through them. During the infrequent times when she wasn't playing, Ms. Tichman would just stare at her feet and play with the grips on the back of her violin as if she were too shy to enjoy the spotlight.

The final piece was Vaughan Williams' 1934 Fourth Symphony, where the composer threw away most of his pastoral and pictorial styles, and instead decided to write something fierce and discordant. The symphony hasn't been played here since 1944, and the onset of World War Two is all over its sound. The first two movements seemed to meander all over the place, but the piece comes together in the linked final movements where conductor Tortelier just about jumped off the podium in excitement. You're not going to have many chances to hear this music live, so do check it out.


LouisianaJones said...

You're on the right track mentioning Mr. Jacobs' Messiaen (and J.S. Bach) marathons. His encore on Wednesday night was Messiaen's Dieu parmi nous

Anonymous said...

The visual disconnect between organist's location and source of sound reminds me of the time disconnect that's a feature of some organs. The one time I got a chance to play a church organ I couldn't overcome the feedback loop I knew from the piano, where the sound arrives at your ear in a space of time too brief to be perceived. On the organ it seemed endless, a second at least, so I kept slowing to a dead stop because I was waiting for the sound to confirm that I'd depressed a key before hitting the next one. Very unsettling.

sfmike said...

Dear Louisa: Thanks for that info. I actually heard Jacobs do a couple of hours of his Messiaen marathon back in 2002 at Grace Cathedral while walking around in their labyrinth. It was way cool, and probably a better place for that music than Davies Hall, particularly when everyone wanted to go off to intermission and pee.

Ced said...

Mike, I had it circled on my must attend concerts (which I can't, being on the road). Glad you're doing it justice.

jolene said...

I'm looking forward this concert, are you not going to brave the crowds for the Davies After Hours tonight?

sfmike said...

Dear Jolene: I was thinking of going, but it really is past my bedtime.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm seeing this program tonight. Amazingly, I have seen the RVW Fourth live before, at the ASO with Botstein, in NY in 2006.

I am in the minority on this, I know, but my fervent hope is that "The Lark Ascending" and "Tallis Fantasy" and all the other pretty-England music goes away for about 20 years so people instead play RVW's symphonies, which are far superior musically to the lighter fare. Well, it's not happening, but I can dream.

sfmike said...

Dear Lisa: I came to British music through Benjamin Britten, so when I started listening to Elgar and RVW, for instance, most of it sounded like very weak tea indeed. I'd like to make the distinction, however, that "The Lark Ascending" I never need to hear again, but the "Theme from Thomas Tallis" is about as inspired as it gets.

Glad to hear you're an RVW symphony afficionado. You're in good company.

Lisa Hirsch said...

They are terrific pieces, the ones I know, anyway. Tichman's "Lark Ascending" was surpassingly beautiful and it's so much better live than on record.

Yeah, after Britten a lot of RVW would sound limp!