Thursday, January 24, 2019

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I went to this concert, which was not on my subscription series, mostly to hear Christian Reif conduct Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. Was that ever a good one. Reif and the orchestra summoned up amazing reserves of power for the coda of the first movement in particular. Yet the symphony didn't sound like a machine running of itself, as is often the case with fully energetic performances of this work. It lived, it breathed, it expressed emotions. A great performance of one of its century's great symphonies.

It was preceded by an account of Richard Strauss' Don Juan which had some of the same characteristics. In between, however, came something totally different.

Guest cellist Johannes Moser was originally scheduled to premiere a new concerto by Andrew Norman. That I'd have liked to hear, but it's been postponed to "a future season", it says here, for reasons unknown. It doesn't necessarily mean the composer missed the deadline, though that's the obvious explanation. Instead, we had the 1970 cello concerto by the Polish modernist Witold Lutoslawski.

This work is one of that peculiar subset of high modernist effluvia that seems to have been composed in dead serious earnestness but which comes across as goofy, even funny, because it's so pretentiously ridiculous. It begins with the cellist playing a D over again about twenty times, switching to some noodling, then going back to the D until interrupted by a loud blat from a trumpet. First laugh from the audience. More followed as the orchestra kept trying futilely to influence the soloist's behavior and they otherwise interacted like ships sailing past each other in the night. Mostly the orchestra played very loudly, while the cellist, interjecting between its outbursts, gave off a soapy, unresonant, and frankly unpleasant tone. For an encore, he played a Bach movement in the same grotty style, feh.

Insert here my unusual uncomprehending rant about why do they program such ugly, nasty stuff on the same program with such great music as the Prokofiev and Strauss. Surely it wasn't because they thought the Lutoslawski was funny.

I did have an unexpected treat this day. I have a few reliable restaurants I usually eat at before concerts in the City, but this time I tried something new. It's San Francisco Restaurant Week, which means a bunch of places are offering special multi-course menus for a fixed price. I decided to try a Catalan bistro in the Financial District (close to a Bart station, then a quick run on the Muni streetcar to Van Ness where the symphony hall is). There I had a smooth tomato soup with tender shrimp in it, paella with cuttlefish and sausage, served in the pan it was cooked in - paella for one person is a rare treat - and a custard that gets raves from me, who normally doesn't like fancy desserts. Restaurant week will still be going on next time I'm up, so I've picked another place to try.

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