Saturday, May 26, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

For this concert, I did something I haven't had a chance to do in a number of years. I sat in what at Davies is called the Center Terrace section, behind the orchestra. I used to do this occasionally for big brassy works that were favorites of mine that I knew well. I'd sit immediately behind and above the trumpets and trombones and glory in the beefed-up sound I'd get up there. I've heard various Bruckner symphonies and Holst's The Planets, among others, this way. Tonight it was the turn of Shostakovich's Sixth, not in truth one of his brassier efforts. But it was great to hear this little-played piece a second time in one season (the Cleveland Orchestra did it on their visit), and it was fun listening to it with the sound "upside down", as it were, with the brass and percussion sticking out, and (in this seating, at least) the violas and basses most prominent among the subdued strings.

But by that token, behind is not a good place from which to judge music you don't already know, so you won't learn much from me about Kalevi Aho's Minea, which guest conductor Osmo Vänskä brought from his home orchestra, the Minnesota O., where it was a recent commission. Except that it features a lot of fast rhythms played on small hand-drums, and that, as with so much recent music, it runs on way too long for what it has to say, and keeps on saying it to the point of saturation.

The gutsiness of soloist Hilary Hahn's performance in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 was evident even from far behind her.

A particular point of interest in sitting behind the orchestra is the rare opportunity to study the conductor from the front, a position revealing much more in the way of expression. MTT is satisfying to view from this position, because he always looks as if he's enjoying himself; so does Dennis Russell Davies. Herbert Blomstedt, on the other hand, is an alarming sight this way, because he gets so intensely involved with the music that during dramatic passages he appears to be about to suffer a stroke.

Vänskä looks like a technically proficient conductor. His beat and expression are clear and precise, though sometimes delivered from beneath his music stand, and he gives lots of cues, even to the soloist in the concerto. He also has the unusual habit of setting tempo by surreptitiously, with his hands or even his mouth where the audience can't see it, signaling a couple measures of the pulse before giving the downbeat. But he didn't always establish much communication with the orchestra as the better conductors do. During both the Aho and the Prokofiev he kept his head buried deeply in the score, and hardly looked at the players at all. (Whoever said "A conductor should have the score in his head, not his head in the score" - it's attributed widely - Vänskä doesn't care.)

The Shostakovich, on the other hand, he evidently actually knows, for while he did have a score he kept his head up this time and didn't consult it. For this one, though, he conducted largely with his eyes closed. During the applause after the piece, when Vänskä pointed to individual musicians to take bows, which he did with unusual generosity, they appeared startled to be singled out, as if they hadn't expected that he'd noticed their work. But he had - I could see it in his cues, and in the way he trusted Tim Day to take the flute solos entirely ad lib, without any direction from the podium at all.

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