San Francisco sustained two palpable if not destructive earthquakes (3.9 and 4.0) on Thursday October 20th, and the memory lingered with me for a performance of the Verdi Requiem on Friday the 21st with the San Francisco Symphony and for a matinee performance of Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila with the West Bay Opera on Sunday the 23rd in Palo Alto.
Imagine an apocryphal New Yorker magazine cover depicting an evening at the symphony. Onstage sits the pianist, a tall figure in black, motionless at his instrument but for the whir of fingers. The lacquered piano lid conceals a conductor’s head and body, but black arms and a baton poke sideways from it, indicating his presence. The audience is attentive and faces forward. But somewhere near row X, a grey-haired woman lies prostrate on her back, motionless in the aisle. Nobody seems to notice, except for a patron a few rows beyond. His head is turned sideways and one eyeball bulges with amazement and alarm. That eyeball is mine.
Hats off, ladies and Gentlemen! A conductor! And a great symphony!
Vasily Petrenko’s recent electrifying week with the San Francisco Symphony reminds the listener that Gustavo Dudamel is not the sole “conducting animal” to be found on the musical circuit these days. Esa-Pekka Salonen coined the term a while back, with the impassioned Venezuelan in mind. And indeed, Dudamel is the sort of refreshing performer who has the winds jumping to their feet like jazz musicians and bass players twirling their instruments. He is all about emotion as vitality. But physically, apart from the energy with which he beats time, his manner is unremarkable.
The fascination of Petrenko, by contrast, is his ability to reflect every quivering moment of the music somewhere on his face or body, as though he were a disembodied hologram. We joke about people who are “double-jointed.” But Vasily Petrenko might as well be quadruple-sprung and then some…this is a man who’d have no trouble tapping three heads, rubbing five tummies and signalling with numerous eyebrows at the same time!
One happy consequence of San Francisco’s famously late summers is the continuing presence of European visitors well into the fall concert season. Warm weather and serious indoor music are a rare mix, and this is the time of year to experience the best of both. So it was no surprise last Saturday to encounter a happy swirl of German voices in the Davies Hall lobby. In fairness to heresy, the French were also out in good humor–or at least the Belgians and Swiss–and for a very German program, too–not to mention unusual numbers of young Asian women, about which more in a moment.
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony stood alone last Thursday at Davies Hall, as the San Francisco Symphony prepared for its European tour. It has become normal practice to schedule this work with a long, rather liquid “intermission” preceding it, instead of any music. And audiences intuitively understand why. They have signed on for an emotional catharsis.
Several solid hits and a bit of a bunt. That’s how it seemed last Saturday at the San Francisco Symphony. Returning from a recent European tour, Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra set before the Davies audience three American works that played brilliantly to his strengths and temperament, and a performance of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony which brought the house down, but seemed a touch undetailed.
1939 must have been the year neoclassic front ranks gave up on William Walton. Here was the “English Stravinsky”, who had burst forth with silvery elbow-wit in “Facade” and scandalized church officials in “Belshazzar’s Feast.” More recently, his First Symphony had transformed telegraphic rhythm into sheer motorized power, gleaming and heartless. (only the finale, composed late and omitted at the premiere, had hinted at something more sensual and cinematic) The earlier Viola Concerto had parsed-out like the cleanest Hindemith, moving because of its beauty, but bereft of the senses.
I first talked to Michael Steinberg on stage. The work was Schoenberg’s massive “Gurrelieder”. I was singing the part of the Bauer, and he was taking the part of Der Sprecher, a role written in Sprechstimme, halfway between speaking and singing. Michael’s German, remembered from childhood, always had a kind of English tinge to it, and he was an elfin presence anyway. I remember particularly the physical way he intoned the last lines: “Erwacht, Erwacht, ihr Blumen zur Wonne” with all his might and main, his small body shaking. Michael had a child’s kind of wonder. Sitting on stage next to each other, he lost no time in giving me a quick review of an operatic performance I had just sung.