Saturday, April 27, 2024

concert review and petition: San Francisco Symphony

Last week, I heard Vaughan Williams's Third Symphony. This week, it was Prokofiev's Third Symphony: equally obscure and rarely-heard, dating from the same period (1920s), but otherwise totally different: violent, stressful, startling, creepy, weird. But, being Prokofiev, it is also strangely lyrical, even beautiful in its ugliness, which is why I find it so much more appealing than equally violent, stressful, etc. works by the likes of Bartok or Stravinsky.

Under guest conductor Gustavo Gimeno (Spanish, like Philip II works mostly in the Low Countries but is also MD in Toronto), the orchestra took it with ferocity and brilliant color. This was a deserving performance which ought to put this piece on the same shelf with the better-known Fifth.

Also on this program, SFS principal violist Jonathan Vinocour was soloist in William Walton's Viola Concerto, which also dates from the same period. The viola is not a very carrying instrument anyway, not when there's only one of it (the whole SFS viola section handled the opening of Prokofiev's slow movement very nicely), and it had a hard time being heard over the loud and clangorous orchestration.

Nevertheless the audience seemed to enjoy it. There weren't many people there, but those who were applauded after each movement of both works, a rather unusual response.

Before the concert, musicians from the orchestra were standing outside, passing out flyers asking audience members to sign their petition online. The petition was linked to only with a QR code, which is useless to me, but I was able to find the petition through searching, it's here.

The petition is to "urge the Board of Governors to do everything in their power to retain Esa-Pekka Salonen as Music Director and reverse planned cuts to programming, touring, and education." I was surprised; I told the musician I was speaking with, a first violinist, that I'd thought Salonen's resignation was definite. She said no, if the cuts that caused him to resign - cuts to the very programs with which they had enticed him to join in the first place - were reversed, he'd stay.

They're also worried that this induced departure, and the pandemic-era musician salary cuts which (unlike at other ensembles) haven't been reversed, will make it hard to attract top players, and the orchestra's quality will suffer. The institution has the funds for this, so what is the problem?

I said I agree. I said there are good orchestras where I live, but I travel 45 miles to hear the SFS because it is so superb. I said I know my history and the disastrous decline in quality after Pierre Monteux retired in 1952, which still hadn't been recovered from when I started going to concerts in 1970. But the last three - four, actually - MDs have been titanic in their quest to rebuild the orchestra, which has been at top quality for over three decades now. It would a shame for that to be lost.

So I'm signing.

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