I should kick myself now for not having gone backstage to say hello…you can lose people from sheer timidity, after all. And agents aren’t supposed to be timid.
Last December, I found myself in Los Angeles. The trip was a vain attempt to escape the cold. And it would ultimately yield nothing but tooth-chattering selfies at deserted beaches all the way down the coast. But I did have the opportunity to hear iconic Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Rimsky-Korsakoff”s Scheherazade and an early Haydn symphony. Both performances were classic, warmhearted Frühbeck in his comfort zone. I wrote-up the concert at the time, and a review can be found here. But I had no idea this would be Frühbeck’s last week with the Philharmonic, nor that six months later he would be dead from cancer at eighty-one. He did seem a bit frail and tired, so I had thought better than to go backstage and disturb him. But now he’s gone, of course…
It would be hard to peg with certainty the guiding concept in Michael Tilson Thomas’ recent choral program for the San Francisco Symphony. As so often with MTT, the selections appear a sophisticated grab bag. But intuition suggests the topic of nature and the metaphysics which spring from appreciating it. Thomas’ introductory remarks for each piece certainly leaned in this direction. Mounting the podium, he reached for his mike and held it like a weapon overhead. This can often result in a verbal concert and the disapproval of old ladies in the audience. But the nature of the music was such that his remarks were appreciated and not too long.
Benjamin Grosvenor Plays Ravel with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony. Romeo and Juliet from Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and a Dash of Stravinsky
Indian summer is a favorite time of year in San Francisco. The city’s deceptively cutting winds give way to something approaching balminess. And one gears up, if not for romance, then surely for a new Symphony season to warm the heart, excite the pulse and remind one that art is the password to beauty’s permanence. I’ve often commented about the happy spirit of our symphony…and do so again. There exist surly orchestras, whose players sit looking for all the world as though they’d gladly wring the conductor’s neck as play for him. (These tend to be Russian!) But before I’m accused of national prejudices, I should point out, as an old New Yorker, that the New York Philharmonic is quite capable of gathering onstage looking as though they’d like to kill each other! Perhaps it is Panglossian naïveté to think comity reigns here, but it certainly seemed so on Saturday.
I wish I had thought of it first: “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” That was how the papers received Lorin Maazel’s death. And it’s a telling remark for anyone who reminisces about the conductor. Maazel was a genius who solved differential calculus problems for fun. He bored easily, was prone to arrogance, and it became his tendency to pull music around until it interested him again. This did not always work with audiences. At times the music could sound like an equation, itself.
If nothing else had been performed this week at the San Francisco Symphony, the Scherzo from Erwin Schulhoff’s Fifth Symphony would have been worth the ticket. James Conlon has become an authority in recent years on the subject of “Entartete Musik,” which is to say, music forbidden performance by the Nazis. And he had the daring to program just what he thought the audience would enjoy. I made a point after the concert of listening to several complete symphonies by Schulhoff and concluded Conlon was right to include just the Scherzo from the Fifth Symphony in his program, at least this time around. The music was both remarkably exciting (about which more in a moment), not too long and utterly hilarious, due to the brilliant and edgy talk Conlon gave from the podium before performing it.
A Week of Music in Chapel Hill: Two Conductors, Two Concerts, One Young Composer, a fine Pianist and a Cat
This is a piece about coming of age, so I suppose I should start with Tonu Kalam’s cat, always more vocal than musical, but who has approached gravitas since kittenhood two years ago with remarkably matured powers of persuasion! “Dolce” belongs to Kalam and his fiancée, Karyn Ostrom. And his progress towards getting what he wants with supreme efficiency seems to match the improvements I hear in the UNC Symphony Orchestra, which Kalam directs and manages, and where Karyn plays violin among the firsts. In his maturity, “Dolce” has nearly mastered the front doorknob to go outside and roll all over the concrete path and collect pollen, which he unaccountably enjoys. In the past, the expression of his wishes might have seemed less coherent. Today it is focused and not to be trifled with.
The San Francisco Symphony is just about off and running for a three week European tour. If last night’s performance of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique is any indication, it will succeed heartily. And those lucky enough to hear Julia Fischer perform the Prokofiev D major concerto (she joins the orchestra mid-tour for Dortmund, Prague and Vienna) will be doubly dazzled.
Here in San Francisco we are fortunate to experience in fairly rapid succession the world’s great violinists, especially the young ones rising. (And sometimes the older ones falling: Pinchas Zukerman’s recent rough and scrapie visit with the Royal Philharmonic was disappointing—a soaring career tumbling for the nets). But it has generally been a feast: James Ehnes, Simone Lamsma, and now Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, just to name a few. Given the level of excellence these days, it is sometimes hard to pick a winner and know what winning means. All are remarkably good. But I’ll go out on a limb here.