Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ray Chen, an Infant, and Demons at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony presented an interesting concert last Saturday with Unstuck by Andrew Norman, the Brahms Violin Concerto, and Prokofiev's Third Symphony. I asked composer Nick Benavides last Saturday whether he was there for the Brahms or the Prokofiev and he replied, "the Norman."

"Good answer," I told him. Unstuck was written in 2008 when the young Californian (originally from Modesto) had a case of composer's block with a Zurich commission in hand, so he decided not to worry about coherence. The piece sounded like a mess on YouTube but the music heard live was exciting. There seem to be 100 musical fragments thrown together in the first half of the huge orchestral piece, but it settles down into a gentle, lovely ending with cellists Peter Wyrick and Amos Yang (above) playing a soft, ethereal duet.

Then it was Brahms' Violin Concerto with Taiwan-born, Australian-raised Ray Chen, who has the looks and charisma of a Hong Kong movie star. He can also play the violin brilliantly, accurately and with musical intelligence. I stumbled across him two years ago leading the New Century Chamber Orchestra as soloist, playing Mozart, Britten and Elgar and he was great in all of it.

About halfway through the long first movement of the concerto, I heard a strange noise nearby and across the aisle saw a one-year-old infant waking from a nap in a swaddling blanket and sitting up while vocally greeting the world. For the next ten minutes, the entire front section of the orchestra heard a constant stream of "goo-goo" and "gah-gah" while the parents put a finger to their lips to shush the infant, which was ridiculous. They showed no inclination to leave their expensive seats even though their child was ruining the sonic experience for lots of people around them. At the end of the movement, an older woman sitting directly behind them leaned over and whispered something murderous, but it made no difference to the entitled, oblivious couple. Finally, a few minutes into the quiet second movement, an usher finally ordered the infant out of the hall, and mother left with babe in arms while the husband sat there and enjoyed the rest of the performance. The photo above is of the couple exiting during intermission with mom on a cell phone in one hand and the baby in the other. The entire incident was bizarre.

The Brahms performance was disappointing, too. The first two movements were taken at way too slow and sluggish a tempo, and I'm not sure if it was the fault of guest conductor Juraj Valčuha or Chen or both. At least the Gypsy-inflected final movement was wonderful, but it was too late.

After intermission, conductor Juraj Valčuha led a loud, thrilling performance of Prokofiev's Third Symphony from 1928, which was a salvage job of music from his unproduced opera, The Fiery Angel.

The opera was first produced in a major Russian opera house, the Kirov, in the early 1990s in a famous production from Covent Garden that was restaged throughout the world, including a stop at the San Francisco Opera, with Valery Gergiev conducting, a young Galina Gorchakova as the medieval heroine Renata beset by demons, and a nearly-naked St. Petersburg acrobat troupe stalking the walls, ceiling, and floor as those aforementioned demons. I had the good fortune to be a supernumerary exorcist priest in the infamous final act where 60 chorister nuns are possessed and go insane. The Third Symphony takes the musical themes from that last act and creates orchestral variations over four movements. Listening to this performance viscerally conjured the experience of being torn limb from limb by SF Opera Chorus women as they sang percussive high C's, while female supernumeraries were being stripped naked by Russian acrobats and tossed around the stage. That was some serious fun.

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