San Francisco Symphony Spherical Image

The San Francisco Symphony: Beethoven and Strauss

I went to the San Francisco Symphony tonight. The Beethoven Eroica Piano Concerto was one of the most gorgeous performances I’ve ever heard in my lifetime. Flawless. Perfection. I can’t think of anything that could have been done more beautifully.

Conductor: Daniel Harding, a Frenchman
Pianist: Paul Lewis, a British fellow

Paul Lewis
Pianist Paul Lewis

The pianist’s performance was unparalleled! Every note, every phrase, every nuance, every melodic arch attended with pristine care. I was enraptured. And the conductor was the same. The small orchestra was classically constrained but never diminished. They performed as one single expression of ever-present, mindful yet effortless beauty!

Daniel Harding
Conductor Daniel Harding

And the duet between the oboe and the flute accompanied by the orchestra and the piano and then with the piano seamlessly teasing the duet away from them… Oh god! This performance was among the best I’ve ever encountered, illuminating the sheer brilliance of the piece as I’ve never heard it before.

Second Half

The Strauss Alpine Symphony, however, was deadly. I thought I would perish before it ended. I counted 8 people who left during the performance. The performance itself was wonderful, but the piece just smacked of very bad film music in search of a plot1.

I think they hired every brass played on the west coast and a bunch more from Asia. It was so loud as to be most unpleasant in places. And the piece calls for the instruments to virtually scream at the fringes of their range. Loud. Soft. More loud. Louder. High. Loudest possible sound. Soft. Gag!

I thought I was listening to Bruckner in that it had no melody (only statement) and never was going to end. I hated this piece. Hated it! No wonder I was unfamiliar with the work. I wish I had attended the pre-talk to learn more about it. I thought this would be typical Strauss, and lovely. No! No, indeed, no.

The piece ends as it begins—returning to silence. When it quietly concluded, one section of the audience immediately began to applaud effusively. I think they were simply glad to have lived to the end of the performance. But the applause seemed to have annoyed the conductor, who held his baton in emotive suspense as if there were more to come.

Oh dear god, no! Not more! I would have to leave.2 But after about 20 more seconds of blessed, sacred silence, after the applause had ceased, he dismissed the end of the pregnant pause. The audience returned to applauding as I fled the hall.

I must learn more about this piece. Programatic, yes. Beautiful, no.

Anyway, I hopped into a taxi and headed back to the apartment. The driver, a scraggly, fairly unkempt fellow in his 50s/60s, asked simply, “How did you enjoy the piano piece?” My effusive praise was a bit restrained. I just assumed that he was your typically disinterested taxi driver and probably was just being polite. But, never forget, this is San Francisco.

No!

The driver loves piano music. He goes to every piano performance, and only piano performances, at Davies Hall and the Conservatory. He has an usher friend who lets him stand in the back of the hall and then sneak out.

He gets a last minute $15 ticket. In fact, with the help of his usher friend, he has this very cunning strategy that lets him pay $65 for the season, cancel individual performances, and replace them with tickets from season ticket holders who have canceled at the last minute that more often than not have excellent seats. He’s on a budget. But he ends up going to every piano performance, sometimes all three nights in a row. Clever guy.

We talked: vigorous conversation. So much to discuss about the San Francisco music scene. Dude is plugged in. When we arrived in front of my apartment, we sat in the car just talking ferociously. Finally, I said that I had to let him get back to work. He then went on about how much he enjoyed our conversation. I know I certainly did.

I’m always astonished in life. You just never know who you are talking to until you start really talking. And those moments of really connected conversation are just magical. This trip provided two of them. Such jewels.

I then had to do the laundry and pack. Goodness. I shouldn’t have waited until the last minute. I hopped a plane back to Atlanta early the next morning and slept most of the way, something I never do.


  1. Yes, I know: Alpine expedition—during an earthquake, maybe

  2. I serious thought about leaving several times. The couple in the box with me left early on. Smart people.