Sunday, February 3, 2013

concert reviews

My fortune from Chinese lunch on Friday read, "An interesting musical opportunity is in your near future."

1. The Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra is running a "Beethoven Project" this year (cue for those who disapprove of orchestras playing composers that everybody's heard of to roll their eyes), and Saturday's installment was my chance to find out what Bing sounds like from the seats behind the orchestra.

The strings sounded strong, and, particularly in the Symphony No. 2, they were not overpowered by the winds. There was more of a problem in the Symphony No. 8, especially with the solo cello in the Minuet trio. However, the strong instruments in the very back - the horns, trumpets, and timpani - did rather stick out, most notably the natural horns used in the Piano Concerto No. 2. Jon Nakamatsu was soloist in this, Beethoven's least interesting piano concerto (well, if you're going to do all five, it has to go somewhere). Last week, for a solo recital by Emanuel Ax, the concert managers dealt with the problem of a large part of the audience seated behind by removing the piano lid altogether, for which my colleague Anatole Leikin excoriated them. Nakamatsu's lid was left on, a more problematic case because he had an orchestra to contend with. The result from behind was a piano that was not too inaudible, but that did sound rather muffled.

From this experience, then, I'd say that the seats behind at Bing, while not ideal, are better than in most halls for producing a sound akin to the balanced one you ideally get in front. In short: modified rapture.

2. My San Francisco Symphony subscription comes with a free ticket to a chamber music concert. This year I picked today's. How was I supposed to know, back then, that it would be Super Bowl Sunday and the SF team would be in it? On the way to the hall - I walked the two miles from the train station - I saw a number of people wearing team regalia, but fortunately none of them called on me to cheer for their darlings, because I'm not sure if I would have been able to bite my tongue and refrain from replying, "That gang of homophobes? No thanks." And, equally fortunately, I was able to slip back out of town before the game ended; judging from what happened after the World Series, win or lose, the fans were liable to trash the streets.

On the program: a piece by the film & tv composer Bruce Broughton for five French horns and tuba, commissioned by a horn manufacturer that's putting it up bit by bit on its website (a less crunchy performance than we heard today). Where else but a first-rate symphony orchestra would you find five horn players good enough for such a work?

Followed by: Ravel's String Quartet, in a Debussyan performance that simply oozed overripe harmonies; and Brahms' Op. 60 Piano Quartet, possibly his strangest and darkest work, in a performance that might have been much more powerful if the sheer size of Davies hadn't diffused it.

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