Monday, June 24, 2019

Reich and Prokofiev at SF Symphony

After a long work week, I impulsively bought a $25 rush ticket Friday evening for the SF Symphony, and was offered a seat in the first row of the orchestra, in front of Assistant Concertmasters Wyatt Underhill and Jeremy Constant above.

A silver lining to the dark news about Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas canceling a month worth's of concerts for heart surgery is the welcome appearance of exciting young conductors filling in for him. Last month it was James Gaffigan and newly appointed Santa Rosa Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong. Last week it was Joshua Gersen, above, who led a spectacularly successful concert, starting with Arvo Pärt's 1977 Fratres for strings and percussion.

Though usually a fan of Eastern European mystical minimalism, I have never quite understood the popularity of this short piece. However, it made the smart woman seated next to me cry, so the fault is probably mine. The composer calls his musical style "Tintinnabuli," which he partially explained in a 2000 London interview: "Tintinnabuli is the mathematically exact connection from one line to another.....tintinnabuli is the rule where the melody and the accompaniment [accompanying voice] one. One and one, it is one – it is not two. This is the secret of this technique."

It was a perfect set-up piece for a new Steve Reich composition, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, since the minimalist composer (above in the baseball cap) has always been about weaving simple materials into complex patterns. One, in his world, can become two or four or eight or sixteen. At age 82, Reich is a founding minimalist composer who formed his own chamber performing troupe before being commissioned to write for full orchestras during the 1980s. He stopped writing for orchestras in 1987, according to a program note, "because the orchestras who were being asked to perform his music were 'completely out of touch with my idiom and were unable to play it well at all.' Dissatisfied and disheartened, Reich ceased composing for orchestra altogether. Today, however, the orchestral landscape is very different. 'A lot of the orchestral musicians know my style,' Reich says, 'particularly the percussionists, and there is a new generation of conductors that are well aware of my music and very skilled at performing it.'

The 25-minute work was gorgeously mesmerizing, with principal players seated horseshoe style around Gersen with the following instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 vibraphones, 2 pianos, 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, bass, and electric bass. Behind them was the "orchestra," a sort of drone layer of strings and four trumpets that came and went.

After intermission, pianist Yefim Bronfman was soloist in Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, and gave one of the most electrifying performances of my concert-going life. I was afraid being seated so close to the open grand piano would be too loud for the wild, pounding sections of the four-movement concerto, but instead every moment was thrilling. Bronfman modulated his dynamics with rare musicality and the insanely difficult piece sounded like the masterpiece that it is. The audience broke with protocol and applauded after each movement, which Bronfman acknowledged by standing up each time and giving a short mock-bow that seemed to be saying, "Hey, kids, that may have sounded impossible to play, but it was nothing because I'm fabulous." In truth, I wasn't sure he would still be alive by the final cadenza. The orchestra under conductor Gersen was a worthy partner, and the piece instantly became one of my favorite Prokofiev works.

Listening to Borodin's Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor after that great performance felt absurd, particularly since stagehands had to slowly lower the piano to the basement before the orchestra could perform again, so I left early, with Prokofiev's wild music still rattling in my brain.

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