Saturday, December 11, 2010

Music I'm Listening to: Gil Shaham, The San Francisco Symphony

Heard a moderately disappointing concert in San Francisco last night, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. On the program were Henry Cowell's Synchrony, Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 (Gil Shaham soloist), and Harmonielehre, by John Adams--choices that seemed a rather odd juxtaposition of the modern and the classical. I didn't particularly care for the Cowell, although I'm not sure it got the most sympathetic of readings from MTT. I'm afraid I would have to say the same about the Mozart. Shaham played well, but MTT's direction seemed flat and lifeless, particularly in the middle movement, which had a rather droning effect. The dramatic swelling effects of the third movement seemed stifled, the dynamics all wrong. Was it just me? Also, the sound seemed distant and muffled. I've had that sensation once before at Davies Symphony Hall, when hearing Itzhak Perlman in October 2009. Last night I was in seat Y107. At the Perlman concert I was in AA107--same seat two rows back. I wonder if there's a dead spot there? Still, that doesn't explain MTT's apparent apathy during the Mozart.

The night was saved by hearing what I thought was an excellent performance of Harmonielehre, by modern composer John Adams. To my surprise, Adams (pictured) appeared onstage afterward. He seemed very pleased with the performance, and the audience was very appreciative as well. Harmonielehre, nominally a minimalist composition, doesn't suffer from the monotony the word "minimalist" often conjures up. I felt like I was riding a scintillating wave throughout, but particularly in the rousing first and third movements of this long (40-minute), three-movement composition from 1985. It was almost hypnotizing in places, but never boring. I'm sure it is a taxing piece for the musicians to play (the cellos, for example, have to bow identical patterns over and over again, and the percussion has to maintain the same difficult rhythms for long stretches, although I noticed that the cello section had been divided where possible, so that one group would take over while others rested briefly). The San Francisco Symphony rose to the challenge, and the conductor seemed engaged in this case. Very enjoyable.

Photo of John Adams by Deborah O'Grady, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

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