Thursday, January 23, 2014

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

This week was the annual "concertmaster Alexander Barantschik leads the string section" concert. Usually the repertoire at these things is 18C, but this year we got more of a potpourri. There was one Mozart, the Divertimento K. 138, a lovely little piece played a little fast for my taste.

There was also the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D minor, parts of which sound like they might be by Mozart. This is the other Mendelssohn violin concerto, the one the child prodigy wrote at 13 and which wasn't rediscovered until Yehudi Menuhin found it in the 1950s. The possibility of confusing this with the more renowned concerto in E minor, which dates from over 20 years later, is immense. (YouTube recordings of this piece are full of comments like, "Are you sure this is Mendelssohn?") The old San Jose Symphony once played the D minor, while providing a program note describing the E minor, just with the name of the key changed. But their program notes were frequently that hapless. Anyway, no problem with that this time. Just a nice performance of a work whose main claim to notability is the composer's age.

Also a less than inspiring tango by Piazzolla, with violin and bandoneon solos, and Britten's Simple Symphony, a work of his early adulthood (he was 20) but based on material from his own prodigal youth (9-12). It's a cute work at the very least, and this was a stunningly outstanding performance. Also very fast, but with a combination of such precision and expression that I've never heard its better. The all-pizzicato scherzo was particularly good: how the string players got so much lyricism from such a limited means could be a lesson to everybody.

There was one weirdness in the program book under Britten, though: a reproduction of a childhood notebook of the composer's with the caption "A play written and 'published' by the six- or seven-year-old Britten, to honor the Prince of Wales after his sudden death." Britten was six or seven between Nov. 1919 and Nov. 1921, but he who was Prince of Wales throughout Britten's childhood lived on for another half century. So what on earth are they talking about here? I guessed easily enough, and an examination of the notebook text confirmed it, but I'll leave it to you to figure out.

Another thing I'll have to leave to you to figure out is the surreal experience I had on the Muni streetcar system. I only take Muni occasionally, and this is like only the third time I'd ventured into its section of the Market Street tunnel. The paper tickets they use there are unlike anything else on the system or anything else I know: after buying them from a machine, apparently you just wave them in front of the gates which then open: I still haven't figured out what I'm doing. I'd arrived in the City early enough that I had time to go have dinner elsewhere, and had a whim to visit a place I know in the Noe Valley, which is on the outbound route. The surrealism came with the loudspeaker announcements every two minutes that cars of various lines were arriving on the outbound route in another two minutes, a different car every two minutes, and yet no car ever came. Unless they were invisible or took a different tunnel. It was just this whole phantom streetcar system. Meanwhile cars were coming through on the inbound route at a regular pace. After 20 minutes of this, I was beginning to run short of time and gave up, switching my culinary interest to a place I knew on the inbound route instead. But to listen to those announcements was disconcerting. Cars continually two minutes from now, but "two minutes from now" never arrived. Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

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