The San Francisco Symphony: Herbert Blomstedt, conductor; Maria João Pires, piano, in Beethoven and Bruckner

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Pianist Maria João Pires

Pianist Maria João Pires

Davies Hall, San Francisco
February 27, 2016

The San Francisco Symphony
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Maria João Pires, piano

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37 (1803)
Bruckner – Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1873, ed. Nowak 1977)

It was a surrealistic night. Every so often a trip to the symphony is like that. It had oddities—both nice and annoying.

First-off, I thought, ninety seems to be the new seventy. And seventy surely is the new fifty. As Herbert Blomstedt came onstage, he didn’t look eighty-nine, that’s for certain! Just slightly snowier than last time. Tall, eager, ambassadorial as ever—Blomstedt led the evening without baton and the symphony from memory—an incredible feat with this edition. No lack of energy there. Just an aging schoolboy with a lot of good habits. And Maria João Pires, who joined him in a highly delayed debut with our orchestra, has now reached her seventies but looked—and as ears confirmed—played as though twenty years younger. I recall Stokowski at ninety in Carnegie Hall. He exhibited nothing like the degree of vigor here. Herbert Blomstedt will surely still be conducting at one hundred.

I’d have enjoyed the Beethoven more, if I were not trying to escape a perfume assault while dealing with the Third Concerto’s tendency to stretch three rhythmic kathumps into a half hour’s worth of music. (I’m not an admirer of the first movement.) Someone near me had drowned herself in rose-water, so I was experiencing floral emotions out of keeping with the steeliness of the music. It was a bit like being drilled by an admittedly fabulous dentist—while listening to elevator music on headphones.

I doubt Ms. Pires has ever been blamed for perfume in the audience, so I won’t be the first. And I meant the dental image kindly. Blomstedt and she are both somewhat percussive artists. Together they produced incisive Beethoven with aggressive timpani, crystal clear runs and lots of back and forth between first and second violins in the first movement and fugato portions of finale. Blomstedt separated the strings onstage and arrayed his three basses center-left.  The performance was fairly “big”, but as the numbers tell, not the massive Beethoven of old. In the slow movement there were some nice moments. But ultimately, structure was the thing. And of course, sheer excitement drove the audience wild in the rondo Finale.

At intermission I managed to escape the rose water fumes. But a stroll was pure Fellini. Though the program was Teutonic, the entire audience seemed mysteriously Chinese. Usually ones sees some necking and shmoozing. But here we had a tableau, instead. The first couple I witnessed consisted of a tall African woman in a red dress and enormous turban patting a tiny bald man on the head.  It looked like Winnie Mandela attending the concert with Elmer Fudd. The patting went on strangely for some minutes. It was that kind of night….

Back in the hall, I noted that Herbert Blomstedt is not a cold conductor. But his affections come in the form of a rough blanket. That works fine in the Bruckner Third Symphony. The piece was composed before Bruckner went all-out for tremolo and the long line in his melodies and orchestration. So moments of sentiment are shorter, fleeting and almost Mozartean. In later years, Bruckner summed up his thoughts logically in the 1889 edition commonly performed—it ties the piece together well. But the first edition Blomstedt chose to perform last Saturday has genuine problems.

Every so often, a composer hits upon a new repetitive figure he uses to propel music forward. It doesn’t always work that well. Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture, for instance, shudders along like a car in the wrong gear—and does it so severely—that I’ve never heard that rhythmic device used since, even by Wagner! Similarly, in the Bruckner Third you get the impression that Bruckner is trying to “chug” the music along in every conceivable way. The first movement is a hopeless jumble of tortured transitions—all of them chugged to or chugged from—most of them chugging to a halt for no reason. One such stop finishes off with a squeak from a single second violin, like a wagon with a dry brake pad.  Then—you guessed it—the music chugs on.

Herbert Blomstedt, who debuted this version with our orchestra in 1998, somehow managed to remember all this perfectly and conduct the symphony with visible joy without score. It must have been harder than memorizing the telephone book. You could see the audience was a bit puzzled by the piece. But of course, it ends with glorious noises. And the audience shouted and the orchestra stamped and batted their bows for Blomstedt. The affection here in San Francisco is as deep and lasting as he seems to be.

And I? Did I go out into the perfumed night? You might say instead, I ditched the perfume—and found the night.

Steven Kruger

About Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

2 Comments

  1. William Carragan

    This essay is weak. The reviewer has largely devoted it to the age of the performers and the smell of rose water which he feels compelled to dislike publicly, neglecting the opportunity of celebrating the performance of a rare version of the Bruckner Third for which Herbert Blomstedt has a special devotion. Only in the United States is Bruckner’s music still treated with so little respect, but in his treatment of the Beethoven Mr. Kruger shows himself to be an equal-opportunity disser, providing a wry amusement for which we should probably be grateful.

  2. Steven KrugerSteven Kruger (Post author)

    I don’t mind Mr.Carragan’s criticism. It’s sometimes forgotten in all the earnestness which surrounds music that there is such a thing as an audience and an evening out. The scholarship which goes into reviving the original version of the Bruckner Third Symphony is to be commended. But the symphony itself in that state, coming across the footlights, is less notably to be applauded. I don’t wish to celebrate it! And many listeners would argue,as well, that Beethoven’s Third Concerto is transitional–far from a perfect work.

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