San Francisco Symphony: Classical Romance

And my thoughts on themed programming

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San Francisco Symphony and reaching out to younger/newer audiences in the “dying art” of classical music: James Gaffigan and Gabriela Martinez : Jen asked what the symphony is doing to make classical music more relevant to younger generations

This past Wednesday, I got a real treat when I went to see the San Francisco Symphony play as a part of their Summer in the City series, with a program called “Classical Romance”. Conducted by the exuberant James Gaffigan, the SFS presented a program of “romantic” pieces. And no, not Romantic as in the Romantic period of classical music, but “romantic” in the lovey-dovey conversational sense.

I understand this sort of “themed” programming especially for a summer series, in which James Gaffigan admits has a completely different audience than during the regular season (it’s more of a “Hollywood Bowl” crowd). For what it was trying to accomplish, I felt like this program met its goal and the night was an absolute success. This Summer in the City series is really trying to market to newcomers to classical music – trying to reel the audiences in with “themes” that newcomers will understand, with pieces that obviously demonstrate this theme, not only literally (using pieces with stories such as Romeo and Juliet and Don Juan) but also musically - music filled with passion, angst, soaring ecstasy, etc. The only thing is, this type of programming is harder for hard-core regular season goers to swallow, and seems a bit gimmicky.

I know that this sort of themed programming allows newcomers to come with an idea of what to expect, and so they feel that there’s something familiar and recognizable. However, if you really want to attract new audiences, wouldn’t you pick really great pieces that showcase the strengths of the symphony? I often feel like themed programming compromises high quality pieces to pick pieces that forcibly fits a random theme.

SFS is not the first to succumb to themed programming – New York City Ballet has also started themed programming this year. NYCB’s Peter Martins admits this change in programming is to be “relevant to today’s market… to describe an evening in a much better fashion than we had in the past”. This article also admits that this new marketing technique may alienate fans. So Peter Martins is changing the programming, so he can be able to describe a program better?? That seems a bad trade off in compromising pieces that truly showcase the diversity and strengths of a company, just so they can explain the evening better to non-balletgoers.

I really do understand why this sort of programming occurs, but it’s a bit disappointing to a hard-core ballet and classical music lover. It’d be interesting to see how effective this themed programming is working in reaching out to new audiences.

My first impression of the SF Symphony: I love the summer dress code! This is my first time watching the SFS Summer in the City series, and loved the crisp look of the white coat jackets, which not only gave off a summery feel but also a nostalgic air of old fashioned ice cream makers. Ok maybe that was a little off the wall, but I loved it nonetheless.

First off, the SF Symphony is in absolute stellar condition. Their sound and their unity completely had me mesmerized for the majority of the night. My criticisms of that night had nothing to do with the symphony itself, whose musicianship completely blew me away. For me, the standouts were the woodwinds, which blended perfectly and in complete unison. One of my favorite moments of the night was hearing the combination of violas and bassoons – it was such a warm sound, like drinking a hot toddy on a cold day, and you get a warm stirring feeling in the bottom of your heart that stays there. Amazing!

James Gaffigan, the new associate conductor of the SFS, is young and energetic; he really coaxed amazing sounds out of the musicians. He was a joy to watch, and will be someone to watch out in the near future. Especially with his young age and leading a number of musicians who are probably double his age, I felt like he led the orchestra well with a sense of calm and relate-able (is that a word?) authority.

The night opened with the Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture for Romeo and Juliet. It was pretty, also angsty, and there was one section in which I recognized the melody, but the thought that ran through my head was that I understand why this piece isn’t so well known. Richard Strauss’ Don Juan was next. My thought was that this piece would be really fun to play, if I was a musician in the orchestra – with really fun sounds (fun percussion instruments, dramatic and movie-like themes) and passionate dramatic moments where you could really play the heck out of the melody, but as I sat and listened, my main emotion was absolute confusion. I was confused as to the overall flow of the piece, and what the piece was trying to say. Maybe I completely missed the point but who knows. The pieces were played beautifully however, especially with only one rehearsal!

After intermission, the program closed with the infamous Rach 3 – Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, played by the 23 year old Gabriela Martinez. This monstrosity of a piece is like watching a movie with huge special effects. You watch it not because it has a good story line and it satisfies the soul, but because it’s a spectacle. I keep on comparing this concerto the Rach 2, which is my personal favorite – with a much tighter flow and a more subtle and heartaching musicality. For what it was, it was great. Gabriela Martinez is brimming with talent, but I love my Rach 3 with nostrils blaring, pianist standing up in their seat, with sweat dripping off their face. This piece really calls for someone who is absolutely exploding with emotion, rage, and passion that can’t be held back. In this sense, Martinez fell short – she is currently a bit green proclaiming the message of “let’s just get through this”. On the up side, she will only mature and get better with age. She had flashes of moving musicality and her restraint was uniquely satisfying, but I feel like she would be much better at a Beethoven piece – a Romantic piece that’s characterized by simmering emotion and restraint.

In short: I had a really great time. The San Francisco Symphony is in top notch form, and I am very very excited to see what they will be playing next season. I really wished I had caught their Mozart piano concerto and Beethoven Symphony No. 7 program – a program more like their regular season, thus explaining my attraction to this program.

If you are not a classical music fiend and was curious about what the SF Symphony is like, the Summer in the City series is perfect for you. It’s great theater, and you will be able to enjoy high quality art and musicianship. I dare you to try it.

Thanks to Louisa Spier with the SF Symphony! I really admire the efforts of the symphony to reach out to younger and new audiences, and was glad to be a part of it. I had a great time at Blogger Night, meeting fellow bloggers George, Barce, Patricia, and Kevin.

My previous recommendations of the Summer in the City series here.

I’ll post recommendations for next season’s SFS concerts soon.

Edited to add:

I found more blogs about Blogger Night. I particularly enjoyed this one. Here’s another entry from Social Media.

One thought on “San Francisco Symphony: Classical Romance

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