Wednesday, June 27, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

One thing tonight's concert proved definitively: the SFS Chorus is in as good hands with Ragnar Bohlin as it was with its previous director, Vance George. Not only did the chorus fairly stride over the orchestra in the bombastic chaos of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", but they also sang the rhythmically and intonationally treacherous Lux aeterna of Ligeti with care and precision, and the same eerie tone you remember from hearing this work during the trip over the lunar surface to TMA-1 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (As this is an acappella work, Bohlin conducted; MTT did the rest.)

I also liked the bass-baritone in the Beethoven, Nathan Berg. More a bass than a baritone, he spat out the lower-lying parts of his solos with vigor. As for the rest of the Ninth, MTT led a particularly beauteous slow movement, usually the weak link in the chain, with lyric line and a little bounce in the violin decorations on the repeats of the theme.

The Ninth isn't quite long enough to make a concert by itself, so there's always the question of what will go in a miniature first half to fill up the space. It's often something choral, since you've got the chorus for the evening anyway; in this case it was Lux aeterna and Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, a collection of pontillistic hoohah in the orchestra over which a narrator intones a tale of Nazi brutalism in the ghetto, concluding with the victims suddenly breaking out in the Sh'ma, the basic and fundamental Jewish prayer. At which point a men's chorus in the back does exactly that, though not to any liturgical melody I've ever heard the Sh'ma sung to.

The idea that these pieces, modern classics though they're both said to be, and mercifully brief as they both are, have any business breathing the same air as Beethoven is ludicrous, but one thing they do show is the variety of styles that modernist nonsense can be written in, as Ligeti's nonsense sounds totally unlike Schoenberg's nonsense. If forced to choose my poison, I'll pick Ligeti. Sigh.

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