Monday, April 27, 2015

Music I'm listening to: Two San Francisco Symphony Concerts

I recently attended two excellent San Francisco Symphony concerts. The Symphony performed with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting and Igor Levit at the piano on Thursday, April 17 at The Green Music Center and I heard the April 24 concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, with guest conductor Vasily Petrenko on the podium. The soloist was Sa Chen, who performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. It's always best to write about concerts when the memories are fresh. Work and other obligations have caused me to delay in this case, but a few thoughts follow.

The Green Music Center concert was remarkable mostly for its overall clarity--everything where it should have been from start to finish. Heras-Casado conducted Haydn's Symphony No. 44, followed by the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9 (with Levit at the piano) and, after intermission, Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy) and Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements. Levit isn't a showy performer, but he handled the Mozart deftly.

The hall, sadly, was only about two-thirds full, which is a shame. I really don't understand why Sonoma County classical music enthusiasts haven't supported the SFS concerts at the Green Music Center with more attendance. This is one of the finest ensembles in the world. It's so much easier to see them here in Sonoma County than to drive into the city, and the ticket prices have been very reasonable. As a result of the poor turnout, the Symphony will not continue the Green Music Center series next season--again, a shame.

I sat in one of the balcony seats over the performers at the Green Music Center, where the sound suffers a little but you get a good view of the conductor and you can watch the music move through the different sections of the orchestra. The program provided a lesson in the development of orchestral ensembles. The Haydn piece, written in 1771, was scored mostly for strings with the exception of two oboes and two natural horns. Natural horns have no valves and are limited to a single key, if my understanding is correct, but the key can be altered by adding extensions of curved tubing to the existing tubing. It was fun to watch the changes from above. The Mozart, written only six years later, was scored for a nearly identical ensemble. The Debussy, written more than a century later (1894) adds three flutes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two harps, and antique cymbals. There are four horns instead of two, and these are now modern, valved horns. With the Stravinsky, the ensemble swelled further.

The April 24 concert in the city was memorable mostly for Sa Chen's playing. I had never heard Sa Chen play or even heard of her. There are so many young Chinese piano wizards these days, it's hard to keep track sometimes. I don't really like Rachmaninoff's piano concertos--much too much bombast for my taste, but I know they're admired by many and they're known for being technically challenging. They require speed, precision, and power. Sa Chen, although she is a small woman, has all three of these qualities in spades.

My seat is in the fourth row, slightly to the left of center (from the audience's perspective). That puts me right across from the soloist, giving me an excellent view of a pianist's hands when the soloist is a pianist. Sa Chen wore a gold lamé gown off the right shoulder, allowing a view of her entire arm on the side closer to me. Her skin is pale and the spotlights from overhead made her arm look like it was carved from ivory-colored marble--although marble that was clearly alive. I was put in mind of the Pygmalion story. Watching the muscles move in her well developed forearms and her sometimes difficult-to-follow fingers was fascinating. Her hands are not especially big. It's remarkable that she achieves what she does. Her playing has the same compact, muscular power that you sense just looking at her. I was more impressed with her playing than I was prepared to be. She got an immediate standing ovation at the end of the piece and the applause lasted long enough to bring her out for an encore--a Rachmaninoff prelude, which was disappointing, as I had had enough of Rachmaninoff. I had hoped she would choose something more lyrical. I'm very curious now to hear what she sounds like playing other styles. Does she excel only at the biggest late romantic works? What does she sound like playing Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy?

The second half of the program was taken up by Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12. Shostakovich is one of my favorite composers, but not because of the symphonies. I mostly enjoy him for his piano works, the string quartets, and the many quirky little pieces he wrote. Symphony No. 12, written in 1961, is subtitled "The Year of 1917." It's dedicated to the memory of Lenin. It paints a picture of the events of 1917 in four movements headed "Revolutionary Petrograd," "Razliv," "Aurora," and "The Dawn of Humanity," but the headings might as well have been "Loud," "A Little Less Loud," "Louder," and then "Very Loud and Drawn Out." The ending of the fourth movement--the end of the symphony--seems to go on forever. It's rather too triumphal for my sensibilities, or perhaps Petrenko failed to give it enough nuance to keep it interesting. The piece was interesting to hear, nevertheless, and despite the above remark, I'm confident Petrenko's reading was a good one. Petrenko was a pleasure to watch. He is tall and thin with somewhat spiky hair--and very Russian-looking. His gestures are big, but not overdone. His hands are immensely expressive. I got the feeling that there was a very strong connection between him and the orchestra--which is not always the case. I enjoyed the concert even if the music on offer wasn't of the sort I normally listen to.

All photos courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony website. Photo of Pablo Heras-Casado by Harald Hoffmann for Deutsche Grammophon. Photo of Sa Chen by Hong Wei. 

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