Friday, May 11, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

When the SFS centenary season was first announced, the administration dismissed the idea of reproducing any of the music played in the first season of 1911-12 by saying "there was just nothing interesting about them." I found this statement ridiculous, so I'm very pleased to be able to report that, at last night's concert, the 1911-12 season bit back. It was a narrated historical survey of San Francisco's musical history from the 1849 Gold Rush through the world's fair of 1915, including nineteen separate pieces - some familiar, some once popular but now forgotten - that either were played or were typical of music played in the city in those days. And, in the process of squeezing all that into two hours, MTT and whatever other powers arranged this show found space for one movement from the big symphony at the very first SFS concert, Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. Naturally, it was the third movement, the bright cheerful one (though in context it sounds like it's desperately trying to convince itself of something it doesn't believe), because this was supposed to be a happy occasion.

And I was sent to review it. Swallowing hard, I got at least a brief reference to all 19 works in the review, by way of rearranging the sequence in categories (all the channeled violin virtuosi in one paragraph, all the channeled opera divas in another), avoiding the "and then they played" school of plodding concert reviewing.

It was great fun. A lot of lurid, colorful music. Liszt's Mazeppa, for instance, which is rarely heard, is the obvious grandfather of both Hollywood adventure music in its first half and Soviet grandiose celebratory mania in its coda. Soprano Laura Claycomb managed to sing the closing scene of Bellini's La Sonnambula without either the tenor lover or the chorus of villagers essential to its realization.

And there was the banjo music, the marimba music, the organ music ... and most impressive of all, the musical saw. A musical saw is a saw, it's played with a violin bow along the edge, and the note it produces is determined by how far the length of the thing is flexed. To hear it play a lyric Offenbach theme, in tune yet, is to witness something truly awesome.

Prior to the concert, I had some extra time on my hands, so I decided to go somewhere classically San Franciscan that I hadn't stopped at for quite a while, the Golden Gate Bridge (motto: "Younger than John McCain"). I parked (there is a lot with enough room, but you have to be able to find it) and, for perhaps the first time, walked out onto the bridge itself, but I didn't get very far. With the wind and the passing rumbling traffic, the bridge wobbles and jitters in a manner pedestrians can notice, and the railing is only four feet high. I think I would rather be somewhere else.

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