I love the night exposure on my camera. Taken from the terrace on the fourth floor of the Davies Symphony Hall
Last night, the San Francisco Symphony opened its 2008-2009 with an extravagant flourish. Before the concert, a festive anticipation filled the lobby that overflowed with ballgowns and glasses of champagne, and the royal blue theme was beautiful as even the City Hall was bathed in blue to commemorate the occasion. The theater was filled with a noticeably different population of people who regularly attend during the year, with a bigger percentage of younger people who showed up in their formal best. Maybe my previous musings about lowering ticket prices to attract younger audiences was all crap – maybe all you need are sky high ticket prices, a festive atmosphere and an excuse to dress up for the first time since prom, free alcohol, and a chance to party with Mayor Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi, and Rita Moreno (what IS she wearing??). With a packed house – it was unusual to see ballgowns and tuxedos sitting in the Center Terrace behind the orchestra, normally the “cheap seats” – it was a perfect way to start an exciting season with palpable energy and a tailor made program that showcased what an amazing orchestra San Francisco has to call its own.
A photo of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the audience in the Star Spangled Banner in his usual animated fashion, as published in the SF Chronicle.
It was fascinating how the program included two pieces that the San Francisco Ballet has performed in recent years – Sylvia and the West Side Story suite. In Alex Ross’s book The Rest is Noise (yes, I’m still working through this dense yet brilliant book at an imperceptible crawl because of the time that it takes to understand it), I love how Ross can’t speak about composers like Stravinsky without mentioning ballet choreographers Diaghilev and Balanchine. Was it intentional that the SF Symphony and the SF Ballet performs these pieces hand in hand? The program opened with an excerpt from Delibes’ Sylvia, which is one of my favorite ballets (the Mark Morris version). It was the “Cortege de Bacchus”, which immediately brought me back to my two favorite heralds, Ruben and Moises Martin, who opened the third act in the ballet. Upon hearing the music, I immediately see the choreography in my head. This opening piece is stately yet modestly celebratory. This piece showcases the best of each instrument section in an unabashed stereotypical way. The warm strings are punctuated by the flashy woodwinds, the brass section is regal and assertive, and the tympani builds tension and the cymbals crash. With every instrument in its place, all is well in the world.
In Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the symphony members shed their tuxedo-clad exteriors and reached in deep to find their inner street gangstaÂ (gangsters that dance and sing, at least). It was a rare treat to see the symphony act in an uncharacteristically relaxed manner, whether it was snapping their fingers which made the audience laugh out loud, or yell “Mambo!” (I wonder what Rita Moreno was thinking at this point). I think it’s a mixed blessing that the movie for West Side Story is so well known – it makes these songs nostalgic and familiar, yet it also set an impossibly high standard of almost improvisational edge of your seat spontaneity that’s difficult for classical musicians to master, since it goes against years of classical training that strives for controlled perfection. Add to that a notoriously difficult score, and a successful performance is exponentially elusive. Despite this, the symphony tackled these challenges head on. The brass section was thrillingly intrepid, especially the French horn section, and the trumpet soloist (I believe it’s Mark Inouye) in his insane high register stylings that were tossed off with a burst of power. The syncopated off beats adds movement and a pressing anticipation which kept the percussion section busy, including a shrill police whistle. The ballet West Side Story suite presents a happy ending where Tony and Maria are joined together, yet the music alone in the “Finale” communicates that they die. The melody is sweetly dissonant, with an ominous yet unobtrusive bass. It’s still hopeful for their love can never die, yet realistically accepting of the two lovers’ doomed fate. In addition, I swear conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was dancing actual Jerome Robbins’ choreography on his conductor’s podium.Â In all, this piece was a spirited audience crowd pleaser that was pure fun.
Yefim Bronfman. Photo by Dario Acosta
The monstrosity that is Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto (“Rach 3″) closed the program, with pianist Yefim Bronfman. The piece started off well, with a deep soulful deliberateness that was refreshingly introspective. At times however, it became so introspective that the melody became internalizedÂ to inaudible levels; the symphony accompaniment overwhelmed the quietness of the piano. In other moments though, when the volume balance was even, the symphony achieved an uncanny effect of having melded with the piano and speaking as one, which was a rare delight I hadn’t really heard before. There were some moments of odd tempo choices too – at one point in the first movement, the soloist and the conductor brings the avalanche-rolling-down-a-mountain momentum to a screeching halt, before rearing up to go again. It gave a halting effect that was unexpectedly severe. All seemed to improve as the piece progressed, with thoughtful and surprising moments of tenderness in Bronfman’s playing in the midst of craziness and chaos. In the even more monstrous third movement, Bronfman rolled up his sleeves and just went for it which brought the piece to a close in a thunderous finish.
The decoration inside one of the tents where the post-concert party was going on
It was an excellent start to a highly anticipated season. And personally for me, it was a treat to attend my first gala with my beloved symphony (yes, mine) and to meet fellow blogger sfmike, finally!, who is just as charming and funny in person as he is on his blog (and he got extra points in my book because he said I was prettier than he had imagined! What a charmer).
It also got me thinking about young people and classical music – I feel like young people are coming out to galas but not concerts, maybe because it’s a feeling of exclusivity that they can partake in, even though it costs a lot of money. Maybe it’s if they pay a lot of money, they feel entitled to be there even with their inexperience or discomfort at the lack of knowledge of concert etiquette or dress. Or maybe it’s the parties that make it fun. SF Symphony is doing something new this year, called Davies After Hours. It’s going to be a post-performance gathering on the fourth floor of the symphony hall for a more lounge-y intimate “musical response” which relates to the program just seen – whether it’s a jazz take on a piece that was just heard, etc. It will utilize the talents of symphony members, including members who are also in a rock band, a composer who’s also a DJ, or a violist who plays the electric violin. My gut feeling is that this program will become highly successful, with the added benefit of cleverly continuing to educate audiences about classical music at the same time.
The San Francisco Symphony season is off to a running start! Start picking out your programs now – there are some really good programs coming up this season.
San Francisco Symphony