San Francisco Symphony

By Comparison: SFS/ASO

I suppose we become spoiled bit by bit, without really being aware of the process. When we repeatedly experience something marvelous, and are even acutely aware of how extraordinary the experiences are, we still seem somewhat unaware that our expectations for this new, higher level of perfection are also growing. I recently had this expectation of excellence clearly defined for me in a bit of a stark way.

San Francisco SymphonyFor the past several years we have had season tickets to the San Francisco Symphony, truly, a world-class symphony. Their performances have thrilled us both. Perfect precision. Incomparable artistry. Refined nuance. Flawless technical skill. The best in repertoire.

Such was the case, yet once again, Saturday night. Maria João Pires performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37 (1803) with Herbert Blomstedt conducting. The performance simply cleansed the mundane from the soul. I was thrilled beyond words. At the age of 72, she made her San Francisco Symphony debut and delivered utter perfection. Perfect articulation. Every melody and counter melody unfolding with delight. This performance was one of the best expressions of human beauty one can ever hope to hear.

I was reminded of her 1998 performance in Amsterdam when she was expecting to play one concerto and the orchestra began playing another. Some have referred to it as a PR stunt, but I’m not so sure it wasn’t genuine. You can see a brief video of it at this YouTube video link, which is also provided below for your quick view.

The second half of the concert was Bruckner. I couldn’t bear to hear a Bruckner symphony after such a flawless performance. (I’m sorry, I personally find Bruckner tedious to the extreme. Just say it already!) We called it a night.

The San Francisco Symphony has spoiled me, completely spoiled me. Their performances are consistently among the most beautiful experiences of my life with very rare exception.

Compare & Contrast

A couple of weeks ago, we went to the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta to hear a performance of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I remembered hearing my first concert by that organization back when I was at university. Back then, even with my very limited concert-going experience, I was stricken with how awful they were. The violins’ intonation was that of a mediocre high school orchestra. They lacked any sort of precision with little attention to detail. I actually recall feeling relieved that they simply made it through the piece. I don’t recall what it was. (In those days I would buy the then $8 tickets made available at the last minute from patrons who informed the box office they would not be in attendance!)

When Robert Shaw was the conductor, their performance vastly improved. They attained a level of rhythmic precision previously entirely lacking from their concerts. The choral performances were wonderful. The hall itself was so-so, but I hadn’t experienced (couldn’t afford to) much else.

Upon returning to Atlanta, I worried a bit about going to hear the ASO. I knew I had been spoiled by hearing the San Francisco Symphony on a regular basis. My worries were well founded.

The ASO sounded much like listening to a recording. Nothing clean and clear. Nothing ultra precise. No magnificent melodic arches or nuance. They sounded as though they were just going through the motions, as my brother-in-law would say, they had “been put through the blander.” Their performance wasn’t really awful. But it was not thrilling in any sense.

I suspect that a lot of this is related to the hall itself. Davies Symphony Hall the Woodruff Arts Center is not. The WAC looks like a high school stage, and it sounds dead, deader than a door knob, as my grandfather used to say. It’s a small hall, and I’m shocked the fire marshal allows the long rows (from one side to another) with no aisles to provide emergency egress—especially given the hall’s history!1

I am sincerely grateful to the Woodruff family for their wonderful contribution to the arts in Atlanta. I’m delighted that the hall has been renovated. But, the time has come to build a new symphony hall worthy of an international city. And then, the symphony needs to hire an artistic director that will put the symphony on the world stage. Anything less is just unacceptable for a metropolitan area this size. Atlanta can’t just be about sports arenas and stadiums.

So, yes. I’m spoiled. Well, maybe not.

Perhaps, just perhaps, every city deserves to be enriched with the caliber of artistic expression the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony offer their community. So, I’m blessed. I really am. And my life knows something more, something deeper, of the greatness of the human spirit because of the fantastic declarations of beauty the San Francisco Symphony provides concert after concert.

I am most grateful.

  1. On the opening night of the Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta’s mink-furred elite was treated to the 1812 Overture complete with real cannons on stage firing away and their smoke setting off the sprinkler system completely soaking those who came to see and be seen. With photographers and cameramen on hand for the gala, snapping pictures at every turn, they were less than amused because they couldn’t escape the public drenching in a timely manner. Keep in mind how fashionable the beehive hairdo was at the time!