Saturday, February 17, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Blomstedt week 2, and this venerable conductor (he's now 90) who gets in his retirement to specialize in the red-meat repertoire chose an utterly meaty program of Mozart's big G-minor symphony, K. 550, and Beethoven's Eroica.

No, it's not boring or overdone. These works are supreme accomplishments of the two greatest composers ever to work in orchestral music, and since music is a performing art that only lives if it's played, they need no excuses. Nor need a performance be revelatory so long as it's incisive, which these were particularly in the finales, traditionally Blomstedt's weak point, so good on him and the orchestra there.

An article in the program book bemoans the fact that Beethoven's music sounds familiar and expected to us. It was intended as shocking, and heard by its contemporaries as such. I don't worry too much about that. Beethoven well played is abrupt and dramatic enough when he intends to be as to convey the point.

And I haven't forgotten my own first encounter. When I first placed an LP of his Fifth Symphony on the turntable at the age of 12, my knowledge of his music was nil. I'd never heard any. All I knew of his symphonies was that there were nine of them and that number five went "da-da-da-dum." It was curiosity as to what else it did that led me to try it out.

It took some courage to do so. I'd been listening to light classics, but the term "symphony" intimidated me. I was almost afraid to listen to one. Would I be able to make any sense of it at all?

Actually it was love as soon as the needle hit the disk. I was awed and transfixed at the massive structure Beethoven built out of his four-note phrase, a form of musical construction I'd had no hint existed, and I was an instant convert: the heavy classics were for me. As the LP of the Fifth came from a box set, within weeks I was familiar with all nine and ready to move on to Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and all the rest.

Returning to last night's program, I'd note also that Blomstedt took both slow movements unusually fast, at least in the context of the relatively moderate tempo speeds he used for the fast movements.

This concert was not in my series, so I wound up sitting, though in pretty much the same relative position as my regular seat, on the other side of the hall. To my surprise the music sounded different there: more compressed, condensed, and seeming to emanate from a single point down below, as a result of which it sounded almost monophonic. Maybe that explains why some listeners dislike the side balconies so.

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