Handel and Haydn at Davies

Last night we heard Ton Koopman conduct the SF Symphony in Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music and Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante and Symphony 103 (the “Drumroll”). It was a pleasant but not memorable concert. The Fireworks Music and the Sinfonia Concertante are lightweight works at best anyway (IMO, at least). But the Drumroll is a favorite of mine, and I was hoping for a more polished and powerful performance from SFS than they gave. The symphony got off to a bad start with a small but embarrassing flub in the opening drumroll, and the small glitches continued — a slightly sour note in the horns here, a slightly ragged entrance from the strings there, the double basses too loud during one section, and so on. Still, what we heard the was first of four performances of this program, so maybe it’ll gain in crispness at later performances. Anyway, an enjoyable enough night out, but not a concert to remember.

The older couple to my right really enjoyed it, though. They spent much of the concert cleverly waving their hands in time to the music to give the illusion that they were the ones actually conducting the orchestra. So droll!

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Two Concerts at Davies

The SF Symphony is trying out a new plan that lets us pay a lump sum at the beginning of the month and then get last-minute tickets for most concerts that haven’t sold out. Dave and I were on the list to be offered it, probably because we have been such heavy and regular users of their annual discounted ticket offer. We figured that if we used the offer to attend at least three concerts a month, we’d break even, and there were easily at least three concerts a month we’d like to see (heck, there are easily twice that many), so we signed up. It does eat up most of our entertainment budget for the month, but it’s also a great deal for us. So we’ve been going to a lot of concerts the last month and a half.

A Friday evening a couple weeks ago was Herbert Blomstedt conducting Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem. This is a great piece and a favorite of both Dave’s and mine (I sang the bass part twice way back in my singing days, and understudied the baritone solos one of those times, so its a work I got to know pretty closely). It was a rather lackluster performance, however — not bad, exactly, but it wasn’t up to the usual high standards of the SF Symphony so it was disappointing. The orchestra’s playing was often a bit ragged; worse, Blomstedt’s tempos were tepid, relentlessly moderate even in the sections of the requiem that should be spirited and joyous.

I did like the baritone soloist, Christian Gerhaher, a lot, partly because of his attention to the words. I really love the texts Brahms chose for this work, and Mr. Gerhaher’s diction was very crisp and clear, though he does sing with a Bavarian accent that took me a few phrases to get used to; however, he comes by it naturally as a native of Munich.

The strongest part of the performance was the chorus itself, clearly well prepared by chorus director Ragnar Bohlin. In fact, the highlight of the entire concert for me was the unaccompanied motet (Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen) they sang before the intermission; the piece was new to me and the performance was full of spirit and emotion.

A few days later on Sunday evening we heard pianist András Schiff playing four late piano sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert. This was the second of three concerts on this theme; we heard the first of them last week, but I was in a very dark mood and couldn’t concentrate much on the music. I was in better spirits this week and enjoyed the concert. I know very little about piano music, though, and all four sonatas were new to me, so I don’t have much to say about them.

Mr. Schiff is an amazing pianist. So much careful and intelligent attention to clarity and nuance, and all in the service of making transparent the structure of the pieces! Everything clean and clear as crystal. Not a lot of power and drive, though, even in the Beethoven, which I have to imagine must usually be played more forcefully. But everything was beautifully and thoughtfully shaped. Even though I was hearing the pieces for the first time, and even though I’m not really all that deeply musical, I was able to follow quite a bit of their structure, something that would ordinarily take me two or three listenings just to start to get.

Interesting, too, to hear him so soon after hearing Ms. Grimaud the week before, one very classical and finely polished in style and the other very romantic and energetic, both excellent but in very different ways.

More of the Rotterdam Phil at Davies

Dave and I went back Monday evening to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic in Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Piano Concerto in G (with Hélène Grimaud again as soloist) and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. I don’t know the Mother Goose Suite well at all, while the other two pieces are old favorites of mine, so it seemed like an attractive program, and of course we’d had a great time just the night before at the first of their two concerts.

The evening got off to an unpleasant start, though. Dave and I usually sit in the second tier, where the sound is best and the tickets are cheap, but for reasons I won’t go into we were able to take any as-yet-unsold seats, and the guy in the box office talked us into going for the loge. The loge, though, is a pricey section, and on our way to our seats we got a big helping of Snotty Attitude from the usher. Whether it was because we weren’t in expensive business suits or were two men attending together or are a racially mixed couple or some combination of these things, or whether our need to ask for clarification about which section of seats she had meant to indicate with that vague flip of her hand branded us as being interlopers in this upscale neighborhood, I don’t know, but the usher made sure everyone in hearing distance knew that as far as she was concerned We Didn’t Belong There. Another usher apologized to me for this — “we aren’t all like that,” she added in a whisper. But Dave tells me that he has gotten similar treatment from ushers in the loge a number of times before, and I was in a black mood when I took my seat. Fortunately we still had 20 minutes or so before the concert began, so I could lose myself in a crossword puzzle for a while and regain my even temperament before the concert started.

The Mother Goose Suite was enchanting — graceful and nuanced and shimmering and all that. The Piano Concerto was terrific, too, very sassy and full of spirit. Best of all, I thought, was the vivid, fiery performance of the Prokofiev. Mr. Nézet-Séguin took over the Rotterdam Philharmonic from Valery Gergiev and is evidently carrying on Mr. Gergiev’s fierce and intense style of music-making; I thought it suited the Prokofiev particularly well.

The loge seats turned out to have very good sound, though not quite as good as the second tier (the first and second violins were a little hard to hear from where we were sitting, though I also have to say that I hadn’t consciously noticed this until Dave pointed it out to me at intermission), and being closer to the stage meant we had a very good view of Ms. Grimaud’s hands flying around on the keyboard during the concerto. Next time, though, I’ll have to remember to wear an expensive business suit.

The Rotterdam Phil at Davies

Dave and I went to a concert at Davies Symphony Hall tonight featuring an orchestra, conductor, and pianist I didn’t remember having heard of before, but all three are definitely now on my radar. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, played a really stunning Brahms First Piano Concerto in the first half of the program, with Hélène Grimaud as soloist. Ms. Grimaud was amazing. She plays with enormous fire and force — really, it’s a wonder the piano didn’t break apart and fall crashing to the floor at the end of the last movement — but at the same time with a lot of clarity and care for details and nuances; it’s not a common thing to get both of those qualities together. Breathtaking.

After intermission was a powerful, fierce playing of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and I can’t remember when I’ve heard the last movement’s mixture of triumph and despair more vividly conveyed. Wow wow wow.

Tomorrow night the same musicians perform Ravel’s Mother Goose and Piano Concerto in G and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. We’re hoping to be there.

Classical at the Freight

Dave and I went to hear the San Francisco Chamber Symphony last night in an all-Mozart concert at Freight & Salvage. SFCO’s concerts are always a lot of fun. They started with the second piano quartet, then a sonata for bassoon and cello that Mozart allegedly wrote when still a teenager (it’s fairly short, charming but slight, and very likely spurious), and finally the first of the Prussian string quartets.

The sonata in the middle was played by cello (taking the bassoon part) and viola (taking the cello part), which worked well, though the piece itself is pretty ordinary. Mozart’s string quartets have never grabbed me much (unlike Haydn’s, which I’m crazy about), but the first Prussian was given a lovely, elegant performance, very enjoyable.

My favorite piece of the evening, though, was the piano quartet that started the concert, which seemed to me to have more striking melodies, and to develop them with more invention and liveliness, than the string quartet did, even though the string quartet is plainly a much more sophisticated and polished composition.

There was much silliness, too, with music director Ben Simon dressed absurdly as Mozart and answering questions from the audience in the “Ask Wolfie” section during the intermission break. Not a serious evening at all, just good fun and good music.

The Classical Style

Last night Dave and I went to Hertz Hall on Berkeley campus to hear The Classical Style, a very silly one-act opera based — if that’s the word for it — on Charles Rosen’s book about the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The tickets were a gift from old friends who saw it at the Ojai Music Festival last week, enjoyed it, and apparently figured that if anybody else would enjoy it, too, Dave and I would. They were right; Dave and I howled with delighted laughter through the whole thing.

It’s not an opera for everyone, that’s for sure. The piece is full of jokes and loopy references that take a certain knowledge of classical music to get. (If you like Anna Russell and P.D.Q. Bach, you’d probably enjoy this.) I don’t think you’d have to have actually read Rosen’s book, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are themselves characters (stuck in heaven playing Scrabble for all eternity), as is Charles Rosen himself; there are also characters named Dominant, Tonic, and Subdominant (who go into a bar), as well as a mysterious, wandering stranger who wears a trench coat and eyepatch and who turns out to be The Tristan Chord. Characters from Don Giovanni wander in and out of the action as well, as does a nerdy young musicologist whose analysis of Giovanni has all too antierotic an effect on the Don himself. And many other characters as well, all played by a cast of eight who are kept busy doubling parts all over the place.

There is also a hilarious portrayal of an academic symposium on the sonata form, constructed as a great big movement in you-know-what.

The whole thing is an extended prank, but the invention and wit never let up.

To fill out the evening, the opera is preceded by a really splendid performance of Haydn’s “Rider” string quartet. Totally enjoyable evening.

One more performance tonight. There were tickets on Goldstar yesterday.

Mahler’s Markings

This is a hoot. It begins:

Several weeks ago, we sent you a list of translations of the German markings in the Mahler [Symphony #1]. We now realize that this list contained many serious errors. These sheets contain the correct versions. So we don’t waste valuable rehearsal time on this, copy these corrections into your part immediately.
GERMAN – ENGLISH
Langsam – Slowly
Schleppend – Slowly
Dampfer auf – Slowly
Mit Dampfer – Slowly
Allmahlich in das Hauptzeitmass ubergehen – Do not look at the conductor

There’s more. Funny stuff.