Last night I attended my first San Francisco Symphony concert of the season. This organization has never disappointed, even though I was a little worried going into this particular concert of all 20th century music.
I don’t know how, but in college, I was pegged as the 20th century music guy: the pianist that liked to perform 20th century piano literature. Truth is, I find some of it merely a (very) passing interest. I don’t really like it at all and haven’t listened to any of it since college days. I found the study of the culture and history that was the genesis of this musical style more interesting than the musical style to which it had given birth—the anthropological interplay between society as it relates to the birth of cultural style. But, I digress. Last night’s concert was all from the 20th century. I was unsure how I would make it through the evening.
Now, who couldn’t like Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome? No, who wouldn’t love those pieces?! The concert ended with them, and the audience was forcibly ripped from their seats screaming (no, literally). I must confess, I thought my entire body would just explode before the Fountains of Rome ended. “Electrifying” doesn’t begin to describe the performance. Truly, the performance contained many moments of complete perfection: pitch, intonation, synchronicity—tone painting at its very best. The orchestra utterly disappeared into the musical moment in a way that was nothing short of transfixing. There were no orchestral sections, only the musical force of sheer transcendence! Rapture!
And the clarinetist?! How? I merely ask, “How?!” Steve, himself a clarinetist, was ready to lay prostrate on the ground before this deity. I’ve never heard such delicate, musical performance from such a crabby instrument. I had no idea the instrument was capable of being played at such a soft dynamic level in the registers the work demands.
An aside on the Respighi: I also didn’t know that the company that owns the orchestral score for the Fountains of Rome, always provides orchestras with the exact same recording of the bird calls that Respighi used in his own performances. The mythology is that Respighi recorded the bird calls himself. Whether legend or fact, our time-worn practice of using recorded music in performance was singularly astonishing in Respighi’s day, all but outré. Hard to imagine…
The first half was that which concerned me. I had never heard of Arvo Pärt, let alone his work, Fratres for Strings and Percussion (1977). Prior to the concert, the San Francisco Symphony’s musicologist detailed the structure of the piece. I loved it! Not merely accessible, the composition is beautiful in its structural simplicity.
The orchestra could barely be heard as the sonorous ending merely faded away into nothingness. The audience was so caught up in the beauty of the moment, the applause was very delayed, initially tentative. No one wanted to leave the beauty of that simple yet profound silence made a delicacy by musical approach. The composer himself often speaks of the beauty of silence as an essential element in the structure of music and being at peace.
At times I find Béla Bartók tedious. No, I generally find his work tedious and brittle. I have therefore worked to and successfully avoided his Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945). Shame on me. I loved this work!
Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s performance was fantastic: clean, precise, never brittle, and at times (especially in the second movement in which Bartók is clearly at peace with his impending death from leukemia, which actually precluded his finishing the last 17 measures of the piece) deeply emotive for 20th century music literature! Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet obviously had great fun with his performance with the San Francisco Symphony. I delighted in watching the interplay between the soloist and the symphonic performers.
And the final observation from the evening, which was the origin for the title of this post: The conductor, Vasily Petrenko, who is actually 36 years old, looks like he is 12! (And the clarinetist looked like he was 10!) Now, I sincerely do not want to make fun of the conductor. (The conductor and the clarinetist are musicians of the first order!) He was amazing. But…
The truth is, the instant I saw this young man on the stage, I thought he looked like a cartoon character. From the stage he appears astonishingly tall and thin—so thin, combined with the style of the ventless, collarless tux (buttoned up to the neck, Nero-style) he chose to wear, he almost appears to be a flat, one-sided pane.
His feet are so long they look out of place with his body. And the fingers on his hands were so thin and long they seemed cartoonish as well. But the way he used his fingers on his non-baton-weilding hand, was as if they were a paint brush, touching the tone color, mixing it, painting with it, delightfully playing with it. What he achieved with the orchestra was far beyond his years.
So, an evening I approached tentatively was one of the greatest encounters with musical performance in my life. I really think I’m so fortunate to live in a city with such a gift.[I want to dedicate this reflection on last night’s concert to my late musicologist professor, Dr. Duane White (1939 – 2012). He required his students write reviews of their concert-going experiences. Initially, I found that difficult. I’ve continued that tradition for many years now on my blog. Dr. White was a breath of fresh air: an honest, out spoken, fearless, open thinker with a razor-sharp wit working (when I studied with him) in a college setting that suppressed any form of open thought. He later sought employment where his contributions were more valued. The fact that he no longer walks this earth, making it a more beautiful place with his jovial nature, saddens me. I will continue to celebrate his memory with every concert reflection I write.]