Every year season ticket holders are given the opportunity to attend an actual working rehearsal for the San Francisco Symphony. The early morning work session begins with coffee and donuts in the lobby followed by a 30 minute presentation about the piece the symphony will be rehearsing, followed by the 3 hour morning rehearsal itself. Those who attend are asked to sit silently (applause only at the very end of the rehearsal, if desired) as the conductor and the musicians work.
Several things were noteworthy about the rehearsal:
- It really is the symphony at work. It’s not for show. They are hammering out the conductor’s interpretation of the piece, in this case: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major, Opus 90, Italian, (1833).
- Seeing the orchestra up close (We sat in the 5th row from the front to be able to hear the conversations taking place because the conductor does not use a mic.) in their street clothes is always a wee bit of a shock.
- The guest conductor, 36 year old Krzysztof Urbański, one of my absolute favorite conductors, is in incredible physical shape. At least five times he leapt from the stage (about 4’ high) down to the audience level and walked back into the hall to check the orchestral balance and to hear how the articulation of the players’ performance was responding to the acoustical properties of the hall. He would then leap back up to the stage in a single, effortless bounce as if he were a lithe mountain gazelle.1
- His rehearsing was both intensely granular, focusing on minute articulation stylizations, as well as sculpting large overarching phrasing and even sections of the work as the melodic interplay bounced from instrumental section to instrumental section. This entire three hour rehearsal was for this single work. And while Mendelssohn’s 4th Symphony is highly assessable, even for an untrained ear, his rehearsal style laid bare the structure of the work in such a way as to expose everything for the performers and listeners alike. The innards of the piece were laid bare. I was gobsmacked!
- The orchestra, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post about this conductor, obviously really enjoys playing for Urbański. They listened attentively and worked the piece exactly as he requested.
- I was impressed that Urbański never opened the score. Sure, a conductor should know the musical score inside and out. But he was calling rehearsal measure numbers and section numbers from the top of his head as he started them throughout the entire work session. I’ve memorized music before, but the exact numbers of every measure in a four movement twenty-six minute work? Dumbfounding.
- The principal players interacted with the conductor at various times asking questions about stylization. His musical concept for the interpretation of the piece was utterly complete.
- Nadya Tishman was concertmaster for this concert. She is among my favorite performing artists in the symphony, but I confess to having many! I loved that, at one point in the rehearsal, she turned back into the first violins and said, somewhat irritatedly, “Someone is still not … [inaudible].” In other words, one of the violinists wasn’t getting something exactly right, and she was having none of it! The sense of professionalism and perfectionism in the San Francisco Symphony is absolute.
We didn’t have tickets for this performance, but after the rehearsal, I went to see if they had a single seat available. (Steve had to leave San Francisco a couple of days before the concert.) I decided I would only attend if they had an excellent seat.
Wow: row F, seat 4; that’s six rows from the front in the center section just barely to the left of center–directly in front of where the violinist would be standing for the Elgar violin concerto. Sold! I was excited.
The evening of a concert for us always starts with a Lyft ride. My driver was a very young man born and raised in Afghanistan. He worked for several years as a translator for the US military Corp of Engineers because he spoke very good English. After his people took note of his work in support of the US military, he began getting death threats.
Apparently the military has a special visa for such workers to come to the Unites States for two years. During that time, under certain conditions, they can apply for a 5 year extension and green card, which he did. At the end of that term, he can apply to become an American citizen, which he was in the process of doing.
He spoke of his love for his home country and his lack of understanding of why his people in his village would be so ignorant of what was going on in their country. He is disheartened by their willingness to take money from troubled people who would pay them to cause trouble. But, despite the fact that “we have everything we need in our country to be successful,” they were poor and trying to survive. He repeated several times, “It’s always about money, always.”
The Concert: A Sensational Evening
When I asked the usher for guidance to my seat for the night, she said I had one of the very best seats in the house. She was not exaggerating at all!
I was just slightly to the left of center and almost eye level with the performers on stage. I was 6 rows from the very front. (In my opinion, the rows any closer to the front would be too low to the higher stage platform. You would be looking up the whole evening.) My seat for the evening: F 4. I could see and above all hear everything, absolutely everything!!!
I’ve never heard the woodwinds so perfectly. The orchestral sound was totally balanced from here. And I could clearly see every facial expression of the soloist and the conductor. I reiterate all of this because I totally loved this seat!!
As I mentioned earlier, I am a huge fan of this young conductor’s work. He is in the “eighth season of his tenure as the music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He has conducted many of the world’s great symphonies including the Munich Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Vienna Symphony, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the National Symphony, among others. He made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony in 2016. …”
“In June 2015 Krzysztof Urbański received the Leonard Bernstein Award at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, becoming the first conductor to have ever received this award.”2
Yes, he’s astonishing.
Born in Norway, 32 year old violinist Vilde Frang was equally as sensational. Frang shared in the after concert Q&A that she and Urbański have only performed together once before, 10 years ago.
“Her 2018-19 season includes two European tours with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Luxembourg Philharmonic, and engagements with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Bamberg Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and Seoul Philharmonic.
Highlights of recent seasons include her debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, and performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, BBC Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, and Orchestra Mozart. Ms. Frang continues to have a close association with the Salzburg Festival where she returned in 2018 for concerts with the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg. She also returned to the Menuhin Festival Gstaad with Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala and gave an extensive lineup of concerts at the Verbier Festival. She has appeared at the BBC Proms twice and recently returned to the Lucerne Festival with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orcnesuta under San Francisco Conductor Emeritus, Herbert Blomstedt.”3
Bacewicz: Overture (1943)
–First San Francisco Symphony performance
Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Opus 61 (1910)
– Allegro molto
Vilde Frang, violinist
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major, Opus 90, Italian (1833)
– Allegro vivace
– Andante con moto
– Con moto moderato
– Saltarelio: Presto
After-Concert Q&A with Urbański and Frang
I had never attended an after concert Q&A. I don’t think I will ever miss another! The conductor and soloist made themselves available on stage with Peter Grunberg, Michael Tilson Thomas4 ‘ assistant, serving as the moderator. Members of the audience were invited to come to the floor mic and ask their questions of the two guests. Several hundred people stayed for the Q&A, and well over a dozen people asked questions, actually really good, interesting questions.
In the Q&A session, we learned that the San Francisco Symphony had asked Urbański to select a piece from a female composer for the night’s concert. He chose a Polish composer, Grazyna Bacewicz’s (1909 – 1969) 1943 Overture. This was a San Francisco Symphony first performance.
From the program guide: “The simmering tensions of European politics escalated to a full boil in September 1939, when Hitler’s troops overtook Poland in what the Germans called the Polish Campaign, the Poles called the Defensive War, and everybody recognized in retrospective was the outbreak of World War II.” This effervescent work was composed just four years later. “The Overture’s vigorous optimism stands in defiance of its time.”
I can not overstate how delightful I found this contemporary work. It shimmered with positive energy and enthusiastically embraced life and beauty. This was a stunning performance of a work that felt fresh and glorious, and a work and composer I had never heard of before tonight.
Check it out. It’s a thrilling, 6-minute, exuberant ride.
Even though I had never heard of her, according to Urbański, her influence in Polish musical circles is so profound she is widely considered the Mother of Polish twentieth century classical music. He was thrilled that he had the opportunity to introduce the audience to such a heroine of his culture.
Both the violinist and the conductor spoke of the challenge of this concerto, the longest concerto ever written. The violinist spoke of the virtuosic physical demands of the performance as well as the emotional stamina required to carry the audience through the entire piece, propelling it forward until the very end.
She spoke of having to completely trust the conductor to support her in this endeavor. Urbański said he was unexpectedly challenged by her performance tonight. The pianissimo sections of her performance were so soft as to be shocking, placing an almost impossible demand for the orchestra to perform so delicately as not to overshadow her breathtakingly delicate performance. He said that an only an orchestra as good as the San Francisco Symphony could have possibly pulled this off–the soloist challenged them in very unexpected and unbelievably demanding ways.
But Elgar’s violin concerto is filled with the most aggressive and flamboyant sections one can imagine for a solo violinist! Frang ripped them into existence from the strings of her 1864 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin with incomparable musicality. She said that Elgar makes extreme use of rubato, “as we might use salt and pepper,” in almost every phrase. She said this places very difficult demands on the conductor and the orchestra. During the performance, I noticed numerous times when the soloist doubled the first violin section. I could literally see her making eye contact with Nadya, first chair violinist, and the conductor to insure complete and total rhythmic precision. Oh, these seats!!!!
Asked about her practice being something that must be the top priority of her life because her music seemed to be life itself, she replied, “I’m sorry. I must disappoint. It is always at the bottom of my list. Eat. Wash my clothes. On and on. Practice at the bottom.”
When asked why she chose to perform this piece, she replied that the piece chose her. She stated that her learning a piece comes in two parts: all of the practice of learning the work is the first part and requires a tremendous amount of time and work followed by learning to practice the piece after actually performing the piece. She said that once she has performed a piece in front of an audience, she then understands the true demands of the piece.
A work as difficult as the Elgar is easily practiced in small sections and troublesome passages. But to perform it from start to finish with the rigorous demands of the orchestra and the audience is a completely different experience. Only then can she understand how to practice the piece going forward. It’s very challenging and even fearful. She wanted to delay her very first performance of the Elgar for two months for these reasons. She was not sure she was ready. But she didn’t. And after that performance she understood how to practice it going forward.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Q&A session. What a gift from the San Francisco Symphony: a discussion by the artists about the work they just did. Brilliant!
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the Mendelssohn performance. But, there are no words. Of course, the work itself is just perfection. And tonight’s performance seemed to delight the performers, who definitely played up from rehearsal (which I couldn’t have imagined possible), the conductor, and without any doubt: the audience. Just perfection. Glorious perfection.
Tonight’s concert was, as is the tradition of this cultural institution, exceptional and transcendent – the unspeakable gift of flawless musical beauty.
After the concert itself, he told us of his commitment to providing the audience with the very best possible musical performance, which required he have an understanding of how the work sounded in the hall–the way we would experience it. He said that even though he had performed with the symphony at Davies Hall on four occasions, he still feels unfamiliar with the acoustical properties of the hall. ↩
from the program notes for the San Francisco Symphony concert ↩
from the program notes for the San Francisco Symphony concert ↩
music director of the San Francisco Symphony ↩