Saturday, March 9, 2013

Music I'm Listening To: The San Francisco Symphony at the Green Music Center (March 7, 2013)

I attended the March 7, 2013 performance of the San Francisco Symphony at the Green Music Center. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted Drift and Providence, by Samuel Carl Adams, the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 (Yuja Wang, soloist), and the Brahms Symphony No. 1.  Conductor Thomas led a precise and satisfying interpretation of the Brahms symphony with an especially lush second movement. The woodwinds in particular were memorable, especially the oboe in the first movement, the clarinet in the second, and the flute in later movements. The oboe sounded especially poignant following the sudden unexpected death of the Symphony's principal oboist, William Bennet, February 28, following his collapse from a brain hemorrhage on February 23 during a performance. The basses, trombones, and percussion were remarkably resonant. This new hall seems to emphasize the low end of things. I wonder if conductors have to learn a new hall and adjust their performances to it? I imagine they do. The tympani at the end of the piece were played with special verve, I thought.

Yuja Wang's performance of the Beethoven Concerto was met with a standing ovation. With the exception of a momentary stumble in the first movement (my imagination?) it was impeccable, marked by crisp articulation and fleet fingering. She wore a citron yellow gown off one shoulder with a draped bodice and a long, full skirt with a daring slit--very pretty and rather more conventional than the "bathing suit" she chose the last time I saw her perform.

To me, however, the highlight of the evening was the opening piece, Drift and Providence. I didn't realize until today (reading the program notes) that Samuel Adams is the son of composer John Adams. It runs in the family, apparently, as does art generally: His mother is photographer Deborah O'Grady. I also see from the liner notes that the piece is in five movements, each of which is labeled with references to the West, and San Francisco in particular. Listening to the piece for the first time without knowing that, I'd have been hard-pressed to say where one movement began and another ended. The music clearly had sections, but the overall effect was of a broad, multifaceted, shifting layer of sound with no clearly defined breaks. Talking with the composer after the concert, he called it "kaleidoscopic." It gave me the impression of a progression from a mellow, sleepy state to a new state of consciousness more agitated and aware than the first, followed by a kind of compressed recapitulation of that progression and then a raucous summing up. The early parts of the piece suggested metal wind chimes, a gamelan orchestra, wind, and waves--but all as if heard with the ears of someone heavily drugged--this followed by a shift (the "drift" of the title, no doubt) in the direction of something brighter. The dreamy, shimmering quality of much of Drift and Providence is enhanced by the use of a computerized feed of processed sound, manipulated by the composer during the performance. It's a piece I'd like to hear again.

We attended a gathering for the artists after the concert. Yuja Wang decided not to appear. Michael Tilson Thomas looked bored and distracted and eager to leave--not that I blame him. Samuel Adams was a delight to talk with. It turns out he lives in Brooklyn, where I spent my earliest years. He even knew the street I lived on, St. John's Place--our stickball field.

Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony. Photo of Deutsche Grammophon artist Yuja Wang © Felix Broede. Photo of composer Samuel Carl Adams by Deborah O'Grady.

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