Tuesday, May 04, 2010

A Germanic Bludgeoning at the Symphony

Illustrating once again that there are only twelve people in the world and the rest is done with mirrors, the first person I ran into at the San Francisco Symphony on Saturday evening was Superior Court Judge candidate Michael Nava, who was listening to bird songs from plush toys in the Davies Hall gift shop. "It's almost my favorite part of going to the symphony," he confessed. "Do you like the music of Messiaen, with all its bird calls?" I asked, and Nava replied that he did.

This was the last bit of lightness we would hear that evening as the program consisted of Robert Schumann's Fourth Symphony from 1853 followed by the huge "Lyric" Symphony for Soprano, Baritone and Orchestra by Alexander Zemlinsky from 1923.

The guest conductor was the 70-year-old Christoph Eschenbach, who started his career in the 1950s as a piano soloist, and then transitioned into conducting in the 1970s, making his American conducting debut in San Francisco in 1975. Since then, he's had music director posts in London, Houston, Zurich, the Ravinia Festival, a recent controversial stint in Philadelphia, and in the latest news has just been appointed music director in Washington, D.C.

I had never seen him before and had no idea what to expect, so it was a bit surprising when he strode onto the stage looking like Ben Kingsley playing Doctor Evil. His conducting of the Schumann symphony was forceful and loud and Germanic, and though it was a legitimate way to play the music, it also didn't allow for much humor or dynamic contrasts and by the end of the first half of the program, I felt battered.

Having listened to a recording all week of the "Lyric" Symphony, I knew it was going to be loud and over-the-top, but the music is also exquisitely beautiful in that plush, overstuffed, Viennese turn-of-the-century monster orchestra way. The 50-minute piece consists of seven songs from Rabindranath Tagore's "banal poetry" (according to Mr. Nava) charting the rise and fall of a couple's love affair.

The baritone and the soprano tag team as soloists in each song, with Christine Schafer and James Johnson doing their best to project over the huge ensemble with varying degrees of success. The composer certainly didn't make it easy for his singers, which may be one reason the piece is so rarely heard. The orchestra did a superb job with the music but again the conducting was way too forceful and insistent. By the end, it felt as if I'd experienced a first class German mauling, which is not really my cup of tea. If this does sound like it might be to your taste, Eschenbach is returning this week to the San Francisco Symphony with Beethoven and Brahms for a German Musical Rolfing Session, Part Zwei.


Gavin Plumley said...

The Zemlinsky is a huge work... but I don't find it unrelenting (no more so than the opening of Das Lied von der Erde). That final movement is so pacific and beautiful. Great to hear that you've had it recently in San Fran. London is being treated to the second performance in 3 years next season (with Jurowski and the LPO... previously we had Salonen and the Philharmonia).

Civic Center said...

Dear Gavin: It wasn't the work that felt unrelenting so much as Eschenbach's conducting. And I envy you London's classical music scene, probably the best in the world.