Monday, April 15, 2013

Auditory Adventures in Triptych: San Francisco Symphony Redux

Finally, my first San Francisco Symphony performance this season! 

After the recently ended musicians’ strike at the San Francisco Symphony, I was eager to attend my first performance of the season on April 13, 2013. I admit to having been curious: In the aftermath of a bitter struggle would there be any discernible shifts, attitudinally and musically? The evening’s performance, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, got off to a shaky start with Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan und Isolde, grew in confidence with Ingvar Lidholm’s stunner Poesis, and finally came into an assured voice by the evening’s closer of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Eroica

I am a fan of the Tristan chord, and awaited it with much anticipation. Unfortunately, for the first several minutes of the piece I was far too distracted by the repeatedly uneven entrances of the wind musicians that I couldn’t help feeling somewhat robbed. I wondered if they were under rehearsed, unable to concentrate for whatever reason, or - heaven forbid - they didn’t care. Thankfully, as the melody and instrumentation picked up in intensity and the full orchestra rose higher and higher together for the first climax, it was the music itself that spoke prominently. After this, I let the the ebb and swell of Wagner’s exquisite music-drama take me where it willed. The destination was, in the end, transcendent and fulfilling.

If it weren’t for Herbert Blomstedt’s guileless and humorously detailed overview of Swedish composer Lidholm’s 1963 work Poesis as the orchestra assembled, I’m not certain I would have enjoyed the piece as much as I did. Although there are no traditional melodies or rhythms, there was a kind of pleasingly controlled chaos within a clearly premeditated structure. The resulting sound was wild at the fringes and yet very contained. I found myself liking the piece better than any of the works I’d heard at the Symphony’s American Mavericks series, featuring compositions from the likes of John Adams, Morton Feldman, Edgard Varèse, and others.

Innovative uses of instruments were delightful, including a timpani solo played as if on timbales in a Cuban jazz ensemble. Other applications were, although compelling, cringe-worthy: I wondered on what criteria the poor Steinway concert grand had been chosen for the slaughter as San Francisco Conservatory trained Keisuke Nakagoshi slammed his arms with the force of his entire body repeatedly over the keyboard.

The coup de grâce of the piece began with a sustained B-flat, initiated by a solo bassist. It was joined by the lead trumpet, then by his colleagues, followed by the trombones and horns, and slowly by all the other sections. The sound of one note unfolded and trickled outward into the extremities of the orchestra. As my ear took in each timbre, combined with the acoustic location of the sound’s origin and the effect of gradual layering, the effect was understatedly stunning. This tableau was rudely shattered by a very abrupt and forceful tumble to an unmistakable end. I was left slack-jawed and strangely delighted.

After having had the intermission to mull over my Lidholm adventure - including the one section where trombones and trumpets almost quoted Stravinsky’s opening to Agon - I and my fellow concert-goers were firmly returned to that juggernaut of classical music: Beethoven. And this was not just any Beethoven; this was the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, Eroica

It was clear from the opening that the San Francisco Symphony was in full form once again. My fears about the musicians’ cohesiveness from the uneven Tristan experience almost vanished, but not entirely: I noticed that all the woodwind musicians who had played Tristan had been swapped out with another crew for the Beethoven. This ‘changing of the guard’ is obviously par for the course in any evening, but I took special notice this time. The current collective was musically spot on.

Many will disagree with me, but my gut feeling has always been that this symphony’s final movement could easily have been that of the 3rd, Scherzo: Allegro vivace. It feels a fitting bookend to the turmoil and pathos of the first two movements, an unequivocal psychological and emotional resolution to all that has led up to it. Instead, it feels as if we are taken onto a somewhat desultory journey in the final movement, Finale: Allegro molto.

Musically, the 4th movement is far from uninteresting; the main theme undergoes twelve variations, some charming and some serious, with my favorite being the imposing and beautiful fugue. Of the music itself I have no quibble; it is the placement or presence of the movement in this particular symphony that I don’t yet quite understand. To me, it just does not possess the same kind of cohesive gravitas of the preceding movements to wholly belong.

I will no doubt seek to listen to this thought-provoking symphony again in different incarnations and see what insights or epiphanies might occur to me someday. And even if its secrets remain forever elusive, I will always delight in the unfolding of this watershed symphony, the one after which symphonists could never turn back.

The evening’s performance made it clear that the San Francisco Symphony has returned, albeit still rough on the edges. The final chord had barely dissipated when the audience roundly sounded its approval. Although one couldn’t be sure whether this was earned wholly by the Symphony’s musical capabilities or had originated from ticket holders’ collective relief that the organization hadn’t fallen apart, the sense of potential was palpable. Let us hope that with management and musicians reconciled, an even stronger musicality will reign supreme in a city that so richly deserves it.