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Category: The Berkshire Review in San Francisco

The New York Philharmonic; Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano; at Davies Hall, San Francisco, play Dvořák, Lindberg, and Tchaikovsky

I caught recently one of the concerts given in Davies Hall by the New York Philharmonic, my old hometown band, as part of our 100th Anniversary Season. It was enough to set me thinking again about the role a good hall plays in shaping the fame of an ensemble.

Fifty years of struggle with the Lincoln Center acoustic has clearly left its mark on the New York orchestra’s reputation — though I must say not on the quality of its playing — which remains stunningly world class. But one is surprised to find in the sonority a burnished warmth and tonal delicacy similar to that of the Cleveland Orchestra. Understated tonal virtues have seldom been possible at Broadway and 65th Street. At least in the way we think of the orchestra. But they were notable here and speak well of Alan Gilbert’s Music Directorship.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Grisey, Prokofiev, and Sibelius, with Horacio Gutiérrez, piano

Music making, one supposes wryly, can sometimes be a battle of influences. In this instance, simply put, how does one reconcile late romantic Sibelius with the compositional methods of Pierre Boulez? The very thought might give one chills….

I was intrigued to hear IRCAM’s Susanna Mälkki recently, and not simply to touch base with the new generation of influential women at the podium. I wanted to experience how her musical approach would walk the line between cerebral pointillism of the Boulezian sort and the kind of broad Barbirollian phrasing favored by Leif Segerstam, with whom she studied. Mälkki was one of the principal cellists in the Gothenburg Symphony — for Sibelius lovers a considerable entry on the romantic side of the ledger — but I find myself disappointed to say that in this instance the French modernists appear to have won most of the battles of influence.

American Mavericks at Davies Hall: the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas and Friends Play Cage, Foss, Cowell, and Ruggles

Revolutions, the saying goes, are frequently revisited as farce. If only one knew it at the time! In the ferment of the 1970s, a seeming battle to the death played itself out among advocates of dodecaphonic music and the apostles of deconstructed “happenings.” Both insurgencies would ultimately lose. But the arrogance of the revolutionaries was no different in music from what it would have been in politics. The average listener hoping for Brahms found himself besieged in those days—contemptuously marginalized in either camp—-and marked for replacement. That is always the frightening dimension of revolution: the smugness of the cook breaking eggs for the new omelette—-and the suspicion that you may be one of the eggs.

San Francisco Symphony: Arabella Steinbacher plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; Charles Dutoit conducts Stravinsky and Bartók.

Her view of the Tchaikovsky was a fraction slower than the usual ones built around the big tuttis—but all the better for the subtlety this permitted. There were literally moments when the orchestra, playing as quietly as it knew how, could not match her for delicacy. One of the mesmerizing features of Arabella Steinbacher’s stage presence was the way she swayed to the orchestra—leaning slowly to one side for several bars, then slowly back the other way for an equal number of bars—a mesmerizing dance to the orchestra’s basic pulse. It kept all eyes on her. Indeed, the absence of any sudden movements was the captivating feature of her presence. Just to lower her head and look down could be measured in the bar lines and pulse of the music. This special elegance has already been noted elsewhere in her career and and compared to the special dignity of Grace Kelly. I must say I concur. There are worse characterizations than for a violinist to be known as “Her Serene Highness.”

God Rocks the House in San Francisco and Palo Alto: Verdi’s Requiem with the SF Symphony and Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila with the West Bay Opera

San Francisco sustained two palpable if not destructive earthquakes (3.9 and 4.0) on Thursday October 20th, and the memory lingered with me for a performance of the Verdi Requiem on Friday the 21st with the San Francisco Symphony and for a matinee performance of Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila with the West Bay Opera on Sunday the 23rd in Palo Alto.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti Visit San Francisco: Honegger: Pacific 231, Bates: Alternative Energy, Franck: Symphony in D-minor

Choose wisely what and how you imitate…. This may be the composer’s lesson to take away from last Tuesday’s much anticipated San Francisco visit by the Chicago Symphony, led by Riccardo Muti. Though Muti’s program concluded traditionally, with the Franck Symphony in D-minor, the first half of his concert was devoted to two pieces which undertake, with differing levels of success, the engineering of musical expression through depiction.

Blomstedt Returns to the San Francisco Symphony in Tchaikovsky and Bruckner Fifths; Garrick Ohlsson Plays Mozart Piano Concerto K. 271

Imagine an apocryphal New Yorker magazine cover depicting an evening at the symphony. Onstage sits the pianist, a tall figure in black, motionless at his instrument but for the whir of fingers. The lacquered piano lid conceals a conductor’s head and body, but black arms and a baton poke sideways from it, indicating his presence. The audience is attentive and faces forward. But somewhere near row X, a grey-haired woman lies prostrate on her back, motionless in the aisle. Nobody seems to notice, except for a patron a few rows beyond. His head is turned sideways and one eyeball bulges with amazement and alarm. That eyeball is mine.

Heart of the City

A successful public space, they say, is one where the citizens block the steps. So suggested urbanologist Lewis Mumford nearly a hundred years ago. I’m not certain he would have had San Francisco’s busy Union Square in mind, but he may have, even then. What Mumford never envisaged, surely, was the odd and telling assemblage of human beings who make the Square the center of their lives and a Rorschach test for the character of one of America’s great cities. I am one of them. For those of us living downtown, it is the front yard.