The first weekend of the 112th Bethlehem Bach Festival is behind us. Fortunately for those of us who weren't there for it the Festival has long adopted the policy of repeating the program over the following weekend, now coming up. Both weekends come close to selling out, but it should still be possible to purchase tickets for all events.
Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony are in fine form here, satisfying guides, as always, in their approach to the ironies and tragedies of the Shostakovich symphonies. Indeed, now that we know him well in Boston, it has become clear Nelsons is consistent there in the way he approaches music of this kind. But he illustrates, you might say, along with special romantic insights, the sins of his virtues. Nelsons is what Sir Thomas Beecham would have called a “ritardando” conductor. One notices this not so much in tempo variance as in the tendency to prepare for and draw out a cadence. Nelsons is not slow. But one is nearly always aware of a certain smoothness in transitions from phrase to phrase and a roundedness in the brass sonority he encourages from the BSO.
What a wonderful work is Barber's First Symphony! I will argue in a moment that it is America's greatest. If I review our program a bit backwards this time, it's because we don't hear this piece often enough—or nearly at all in San Francisco. (The last outing here was in 1963 under Howard Mitchell). But it was worth the wait, not the least because of James Gaffigan's white-hot performance. Indeed, Barber's concluding timpanic growl brought the audience to its feet screaming, a fitting wind-up for a concert of bravos, and reaffirmed our sense that James Gaffigan has become a major conductor.
In recent years a great deal of Paula Robison’s energy has gone into training the next generation of flutists. Knowing her approach to music and many other valuable forms of thought and expression, her teaching is a humanistic education in itself. Still, she finds time to perform and record. Most recently she delighted a New York audience with her talents as a narrator—in French, on this occasion. Narration for her is a passion that goes back to her family origins, as the daughter and niece of theater people: her mother was an actress, her father a screenplay writer, and her uncle a playwright.
It is simple enough to dismiss the once vital Schenectady New York, with the dwindling fortunes of General Electric. The town with a hard-to-pronounce name famously malapropped in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New Yorkwas once the seat of the largest employer and economic force in the upstate New York region. The fates have been unkind, and its poor environmental record coupled with challenges transitioning to renewable energy has dealt a fatal blow.
There's something timeless, solid and reassuring about attending a concert in Pittsburgh. The place seems contented. "The burghers are industrious" is an old fashioned way you might put it. Citizens seem to take themselves seriously. Businessmen still wear ties. Nobody pushes and shoves, the way New Yorkers do in that elbow war of a city. People make time to talk to each other in line.
Let it never be said that an evening of Lutheran virtue makes for date night in San Francisco. Absent last Friday from our grey-haired audience huddling into its winter coats were the backless dresses and sculpture-worthy flashes of leg which usually cheer the frisky. Two gay men I passed in the crowd were no happier about it: "Bach only brings out the old men," sighed one ruefully. But there was a fascination for me in what turned out to be a solid, indeed old-fashioned evening of Victorian-style uplift. In particular, I was eager to encounter live Mendelssohn's Lobgesang Symphony-Cantata ("The Song of Praise"), sometimes called his Second Symphony. It was composed in 1840 to celebrate Gutenberg's invention of moveable type (ed.), but receives here its first San Francisco performance.