Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Music I'm Listening to: Garrick Ohlsson with Susanna Mälkki Conducting the San Francisco Symphony

Garrick Ohlsonn following his performance of Beethoven's
Piano Concerto No. 1, Conductor Mälkki to the right
I attended the June 9, performance of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall. The program began with a performance of Stravinsky's Scherzo Fantastique. Garrick Ohlsson performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 before intermission. The second half was devoted to a performance of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, and a very powerful performance it was.

I'd never heard the opening Stravinsky piece at all, never heard Le Sacre du Printemps live, and Ohlsonn gave a fine performance of the Beethoven concerto, all of which made for an excellent concert experience. The 1795 Beethoven concerto is an interesting transitional piece between the classical and romantic styles. Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 of 1803, is usual considered the composition that ushered in the romantic period, but here in the first piano concerto you can already hear something new. The first cadenza is very, very long, for one thing, and, in both that cadenza and the piece as a whole there are sections that sound like the future Beethoven amidst sections that sound more like Mozart. I don't know if Ohlsson's interpretation made the contrasts more obvious than they sometimes are, but it's something I'd never noticed before.

The highlight of the evening, however, was Le Sacre du Printemps. I own half a dozen recordings and I've heard it on the radio many times, but seeing the piece played live is especially exciting because so much is going on on stage (and it's a very big ensemble—according to the program, scored for: three flutes plus piccolo and alto flute (third flute doubling second piccolo), four oboes and English horn (fourth oboe doubling second English horn), three clarinets plus E flat clarinet and bass clarinet (second clarinet doubling second bass clarinet), four bassoons and contrabassoon (fourth bassoon doubling second contrabassoon), eight horns (seventh and eighth doubling tenor tubas, also known as Wagner tubas), three trombones, two bass tubas, five timpani (divided between two players), bass drum, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, guiro, ancient symbols, and strings). It's as interesting to watch as it is to listen to. (A guiro is that Latin American percussion instrument made from an open-ended gourd with parallel notches cut in the side). There was barely enough room on stage for all the musicians. I don't think I've ever heard a performance of Le Sacre du Printemps as good as this one. Mälkki kept things taut, precise, and powerful without ever giving in to what I suspect must be a huge temptation to let the tempo pick up as the energy of the music increases. Maintaining the relentless drive but without rushing is probably the key to making the piece a success. Mälkki kept things right on the edge from start to finish. It was electrifying. Goose bumps and giggles. I've never seen a longer, more enthusiastic standing ovation in the many years I've been attending the San Francisco Symphony concerts. It must have lasted a good eight minutes. A memorable performance.

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