Saturday, October 23, 2010

Music I'm Listening to: Joshua Bell, The San Francisco Symphony

Excellent concert last night, hearing the San Francisco Symphony with guest conductor John Conlon (regularly with the Los Angeles Opera) and guest soloist Joshua Bell. The concert opened with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, followed by Bell playing the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1. On the second half of the program were three Dvorak overtures, or, as conductor Conlon pointed out, tone poems--In der Natur, Carnival, and Othello. This was the second of four concerts. Bell, Conlon, and the Symphony perform again tonight (Saturday, October 23), Sunday, and Monday.

I do wish I could like Wagner. Not liking Wagner has become a cliché. I don't dislike Wagner because it's the thing to do. I'm afraid I just don't understand his appeal. Clearly, there are very smart people that know music and like Wagner, and I try to keep an open mind, but he seems to start always at full throttle, leaving himself nowhere to go. If you start with the kettle at full boil, no amount of additional heat will make it do anything more than boil, until it boils away. Competently played, but not my thing. I guess it was a good warm-up exercise for the orchestra.

I attended the pre-concert talk the symphony sometimes gives, having arrived earlier than usual. I was surprised by the way the speaker kept talking about Bruch as a one-hit wonder, suggesting that the Violin Concerto No. 1 was the only significant piece of music he ever wrote, and wondering aloud why he never wrote anything as good. While it may be his best known and most popular piece, that's giving the Scottish Fantasy rather short shrift. I'd be hard pressed to say which I like better. Kol Nidrei is a staple of the cello repertoire, and his three symphonies aren't too shabby either, in my view.

It was fun to see Bell from the fourth row. I've heard him perform on the radio and in recordings but never seen him live before. He reminded me of Kyung-wha Chung. Both are rather physical. Chung shrinks to two-thirds her normal stature when bowing long, low notes and then stretches up on tiptoes while going furiously through passages of high notes. Bell has a very similar habit. My favorite recording of the Bruch concerto is, in fact, the one Chung made with Rudolphe Kempe and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 1970s (the original LP, London CS 6795, includes a wonderful version of the Scottish Fantasy as well--my copy is autographed). I try not to get too attached to any particular performance, but it happens. I'm happy to say that Bell's rendition was not a disappointment--lush, but disciplined and technically brilliant. Bell let the inherent romantic sweep of the music work its magic without milking it for more than it has to give. The performance was a great pleasure. I thought it virtually flawlessly executed.

The sound of Bell's violin was phenomenal. According to the program, he plays the 1713 Stradivarious known as The Gibson, formerly owned and played by Bronislaw Huberman. Bell's website has an interesting piece about the violin's history on the Biography page. The violin was stolen twice from Huberman, the second time in 1936, disappearing for nearly 50 years, only resurfacing in 1985. Bell purchased it in 2001. It's one of the most beautiful violins I've ever heard in person.

After an extended standing ovation, Mr. Bell returned to the stage with his violin to play an encore. It wasn't apparent at first that he was playing a set of variations on Yankee Doodle Dandy, but as soon as the audience recognized the tune, there was a ripple of laughter. Bell was playing Henri Vieuxtemps's Souvenir d'Amérique--Variations Burlesques sur Yankee Doodle. The crowd loved it.

After the concert, Bell very graciously signed autographs for a line of at least 100 people. The only other performer I've seen so patiently sign autographs is, again, Kyung-wha Chung. Hmmm.... While signing CD covers Bell remarked that he had embellished the Vieuxtemps variations a bit. It appears to be his signature encore piece. I see there are numerous videos of him doing it on YouTube.

After intermission, Conlon addressed the audience to talk briefly about the Dvorak tone poems. He pointed out that a common theme runs through them and had the orchestra play the theme as it appears in each of the three short pieces--light-hearted in In der Natur, darker in Othello. I wish conductors and performers would talk to the audience more often. It makes things more interesting when the music is unfamiliar. It makes things more personal if the performers acknowledge the audience directly. Conlon asked the audience not to clap between the three pieces, as he wanted to present them as a unified whole.

Carnival is very familiar, but the other two pieces appear to be rarely performed. I wonder why?  I hadn't heard either one before, but they seemed typically Dvorak to me--with the composer's hallmark optimism (something about his orchestration, I think). I liked them both, but particularly the Othello. It was fun to watch the various themes move through different sections of the orchestra. I thought the ensemble unusually responsive to the conducting--particularly to the dynamics Conlon indicated. Sometimes musicians appear oblivious to the conductor and you wonder what he's up there for. Last night, the San Francisco Symphony was highly attentive, the performers seeming to adjust themselves at the slightest hint.

A quick snack afterwards at Absinthe was a nice way to end the evening. Absinthe has some excellent (if overpriced) wines by the glass. I had a glass of the 2009 Daulny Sancerre (perfect with oysters) and later a glass of the 2008 Bernard Baudry "Les Granges" Chinon, a yummy Cabernet Franc.

Photo of John Conlon, courtesy of The Ravinia Festival. Photo of Joshua Bell by Timothy White, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

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