Saturday, November 23, 2019

day up in the City

An invitation wafted into the Daily Journal's mailbox and was tossed in my direction, so that's why I was one of some 30 people in a restaurant around the corner from Davies Symphony Hall for a press luncheon for the impending local residency of the Violins of Hope.

This is the name given to a collection of some 85 violins that belonged to victims, survivors, or refugees of the Nazi Holocaust. Some of them were played in concentration camps. Some of them were given up by their owners after the war because of the bad memories. They all wound up in the hands of an Israeli luthier who restored them (some of them requiring a lot of that, as you can imagine) and has put them out on tour. The idea is that the violins, or at least the most high-quality ones, are to be played in concert by local performers, and they and the audience can think noble thoughts of hope and resilience while this is going on.

I'd known there were going to be some concerts of this kind here early next year, but it wasn't until I saw the well-organized calendar on the website that I realized just how extensive the program will be: numerous chamber music concerts, orchestral concerts, klezmer concerts, all featuring the violins; plus lectures, demonstrations, panel discussions, films, and museum exhibits, lasting two months. Music at Kohl Mansion, the chamber music series that's the chief sponsor, has commissioned a song cycle from noted opera composer Jake Heggie and his frequent librettist Gene Scheer, written in the persona of the violins, to be sung by Sasha Cooke, accompanied by those same violins.

As we incongruously dined on hamburgers or chicken salad while talking of the Holocaust, Heggie spoke, Cooke spoke, the director of Kohl (a child of Holocaust survivors herself: I've known her for years, and I had not known that) spoke, and various other people running the local project spoke. One of them was the museum curator who's overseeing the exhibits. She spoke of incorporating train imagery into the main exhibit, due to all the historical resonance it has. Since she's not a musician, I wondered if she knew of Steve Reich's Different Trains, perhaps the most significant musical response to the Holocaust. So I asked her afterwards. She hadn't; she has now.

Although I find something quaint and curious about the whole notion of Violins of Hope, this project is clearly a major local event musically, and since much of it will be taking place in the Daily Journal's home territory, it'll be worth some writeup in my columns there.

After that was over, I spent the afternoon in the city library nearby. Since it has a good music books collection, I dug out some recent books on the topic on my reading want list and browsed them over. A book on 19th century American symphonies, a repertoire of truly monumental obscurity. A book on the anti-German hysteria that overtook the US musical world in 1917-18. A book on the history of the Stalin Prize: how'd you like to be on a musical awards committee with Stalin looking over your shoulder the entire time? And another collection of essays on Russian musical history by Richard Taruskin. He says in his introduction that he's mellowed out and become less contentious than in his previous collections. Who is he fooling? He's just as contentious as ever, defending Rimsky-Korsakov from charges of being a hack, defending Mussorgsky from Rimsky-Korsakov, defending Tchaikovsky from claims that he committed suicide, defending Shostakovich from Volkov and his acolytes, defending musical groups' right to cancel performances of pro-Stalin or anti-Semitic music, and defending Stravinsky from just about anything. I agree with Taruskin a lot more than I disagree, but my, is he exhausting.

The reason I stayed on was because I had a ticket to SFS at Davies that evening. Manfred Honeck conducting Bruckner's Fourth: I couldn't miss that. Honeck's recent recording of the Ninth with his home orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, has been getting good reviews and making end of the year lists, and they recorded the Fourth a while back.

This was in some ways a perfect performance. Each note was played exactly as it should be, every swell and fade was precisely of the right intensity, the flow and shape of the music was ideal, Robert Ward played every one of the extensive horn solos without the slightest hitch or bobble. So then why did it feel a little dull? This wasn't just me; the applause afterwards was warm but not wild as it had been for Canellakis's Shostakovich Seventh. Was it too perfect; to be precise, too perfectly controlled? Was it too predictable? - at every moment I knew not only exactly what was to happen next, but how. The only flaw I heard was that some passages were rather too smoothly polished; one for strings with a more typically Brucknerian roughness really stood out.

Also on the program, Mozart's E-flat piano concerto, K. 482 - supposedly one of his more obscure major works, but I've heard it here three times in the last four years - with Leif Ove Andsnes pouring out pure liquid streams of notes. Honeck conducted by shaking his arms around a lot; this produced an elegant and satisfyingly curvaceous Mozartean sound.

For once, the Millbrae train was the first into the BART station when I got there after the concert, but for once, I didn't need it; as I'd come up in the morning I'd parked at Daly City instead of San Bruno, my usual stop for an evening visit (difference in traffic congestion and parking space availability). Good thing I remembered that, instead of absently continuing to my usual stop.


  1. Is the 19th c. American symphonies book "Orchestrating the Nation"? If not, that's a book you would find interesting.

  2. The Mozart is #22, yes? I heard Ignatz Solzhenitsyn play it some years ago and it is still one of my favorites of Mozart's piano concertos. It does get overlooked because of being after #21 which has been done to death.