Tag Archives: San Francisco Symphony

Veronika Eberle and the Schumann VC

The program last Sunday at the San Francisco Symphony was billed as “Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, with guest conductor Roberto Abbado.” Great, enjoyable stuff. But one glance at my playbill once I was seated gave me no doubt which piece on the program would outshine the rest for me: Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Composed in a matter of weeks in 1853, it was his last major work before the madness set in. I adore this rarely-played violin concerto. If you’re a longtime reader of mine, you might remember my earlier blog about it, and the way its spooky, mystical beauty featured into my fourth novel. (You can read that blog HERE.)

The concerto is enigmatic in a variety of ways. From its earliest days, it was dismissed as fatally flawed, the product of a declining mind. And not by the public but by Schumann’s closest associates. Violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim gave the score a run-through and privately expressed his concern to Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, who all agreed they’d be acting in Schumann’s best interests to stash the unpublished, unperformed concerto deep in a drawer. (By now he’d checked himself into an insane asylum where his mental state was in rapid decline.) Best to let it sit for 100 years before letting Schumann be judged harshly for what they perceived as weak writing.

Lest we now judge them harshly, it should be pointed out that it’s not a flawless work of music. It’s more orchestral than violin concerto-oriented. It’s difficult for the player, and yet, paradoxically, not terribly virtuosic, aside from the wide-ranging arpeggios better suited for a piano/pianist than a violin/violinist. The third movement repeats simple thematic passages far too many times. But I’ll argue that it’s still a charming, spirited movement. And nothing beats the concerto’s second movement with its aching beauty, imbued with something ephemeral, mystical.

Indeed, the concerto’s presence, its resurfacing back in the 1930’s is steeped in the mystical. Joachim’s great-niece, Jelly d’Arányi, herself a brilliant violinist, claimed to have learned about the concerto’s existence only through a séance and contact with the spirit of her great-uncle and/or Schumann himself. But that’s a story in itself, which you can read in that other blog I wrote.

Let’s return to 2017 and the San Francisco Symphony, last Sunday afternoon, where German violinist Veronika Eberle delivered a gorgeous, transcendent rendition of the concerto. Wow, the rich, evocative sounds she pulled from her instrument (the 1700 “Dragonetti” Stradivarius on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation.) I loved everything about Eberle’s performance, the way she articulated and emphasized certain notes so beautifully. The sound reminded me of birdsong, the way so many different colors and textures are revealed, coaxed out of the instrument (or the bird’s throat).

Photo: Jan Northoff

That’s what makes this concerto rather tricky, in my mind. If a violinist can’t conjure all those voices–querying, tremulous, plaintive, yearning, demanding–then the concerto becomes, as its critics will argue, meandering, repetitive, overly orchestrated.

Speaking of orchestras, I must share how much fun it is to watch this concerto being performed live when you’re used to only hearing a recording. Like the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Schumann’s work features a great deal of interplay with the orchestra throughout. It was fun to watch. I was able to observe and hear an intriguing dialogue between the soloist and the principal cellist (Michael Grebanier) in the second movement, that I’d never realized existed. It was so beautiful. The entire second movement was simply transcendent.

I so appreciate that the twenty-six-year old Eberle chose to perform this concerto for her debut with the San Francisco Symphony, in lieu of one of the better known works of the violin repertoire. The kind performed over and over and over: Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, etc. Mind you, it’s not that I don’t love these concertos. It’s just that the Schumann Violin Concerto is uniquely lovely and needs to be championed. The audience on Sunday afternoon didn’t give Eberle the rousing ovation she deserved, and I wonder if it was because they didn’t know what to make of this “quieter” or admittedly different concerto. She certainly deserved it, after pouring her heart, energy and considerable talent into it. I give her top marks across the board. And kudos to the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Roberto Abbado. It takes a team effort to make it all come together.

I can’t share with you what I heard on Sunday afternoon, of course, but here’s one of my favorite recordings of the Schumann Violin Concerto, performed by Gidon Kramer. Don’t miss out on the second movement; it starts at 15m30. It’s mystical.

Was Mozart the first music pirate?

images-403

The fourteen-year-old Mozart didn’t see himself as being a music pirate, mind you. He was just doing the thing he so excelled at, with his musical genius and photographic memory, back in the spring of 1770. He and his father Leopold were in Rome, working their way through Italy for the month as the young Wolfgang performed and studied and learned. Their timing was perfect: Rome during Holy Week. This was the only time and place you could hear Allegri’s famous “Miserere mei Deus” being sung. In the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, to be more exact, as part of the exclusive Tenebrae service on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. It was a big tradition; since 1514, a total of twelve Misereres had been chanted/sung at this service. This twelfth one, a setting of Psalm 51, composed by Gregorio Allegri in the late 1630’s for Pope Urban VIII, had become the mainstay, far and away the most popular Miserere. To attend this service and hear this music was a big deal. Visitors, musicians and travelers would arrange their schedules well in advance to be sure and catch a performance.

Why the big deal? Mystery and inaccessibility have a way of adding cachet to any piece of music, particularly one so strikingly gorgeous, at once austere and lushly inviting. The Vatican knew they had a winner on their hands with Allegri’s Miserere and, wanting to preserve its aura of mystery and exclusivity, forbade replication, threatening anyone who attempted to copy or publish it with excommunication.

But the teen Mozart was hungry for a challenge, and, well, you know Mozart. He was… spirited. Free-thinking. Not prone to doing exactly as he’d been instructed if he didn’t see the rationale behind it. So, as he and his father attended the Wednesday Tenebrae service, he listened to the incredible choral music, and after the performance, his brain set to work. Late into the night, he wrote it out from memory, note for note. And we’re talking twelve minutes of choral, contrapuntal music. There are two chorus parts, divided at times by two, to create four groups of singers. On top of that are four solo voices that create their own quartet voice. All this stuff going on, a cappella, and Mozart got it all. He went back on Friday night to give it a double check. All it needed was a few minor tweaks.

I recently got the chance to hear a performance of Allegri’s “Miserere,” in San Francisco’s Davies Hall. It was an astonishing experience. I’d used my annual subscription’s upgrade pass for a seat right in the center of the premier orchestra section, which I’d done to enjoy the piano soloist in the night’s second piece (coincidentally, a Mozart Piano Concerto). What a stroke of good luck; I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect seat for the Miserere. The singers, a joint effort of the Pacific Boychoir and the San Francisco Symphony Men’s Chorus, lined the aisles on either side of my section. The four solo voices sang from the farthest front terrace section, above where the orchestra is usually seated. The different sections of the main choir alternated during the Gregorian Chant sections, and came together for the polyphonic parts. The result was utterly transporting.

I can’t offer Sensurround stereo listening, but pretend that’s what’s happening, shut your eyes, crank up the volume, and give this a listen. The first twenty seconds alone will just slay you.

What I love so much about this little 17th century treasure is the way it reveals and displays its intriguing beauty with such clarity. Like a really good chocolate mousse, where your mouth registers all these different flavor sensations—buttery, silky, a hint of savory, the mysterious depth egg yolk brings to the equation, rich undertones of dark chocolate brought to the forefront by sugar—all at the same moment. Each is so pleasing. The polyphonic chorus does just that. The Gregorian chant in there keeps it from being too decadent. If you grew up Catholic, that stuff is going to be very familiar indeed. In all good ways (in case you’re a lapsed Catholic and, okay, yes, I should get myself to Mass more often—and I have to say, this makes me want to go).

But let’s get back to Mozart. To his sitting there, in 1770, in the Sistine Chapel and hearing this. To the wonder the teen prodigy must have felt. The challenge rising up in him. The exact notes of the composition had been kept a secret for over 100 years, after all, like something out of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. Time for the spell to be broken.

images-404

Here’s an interesting tidbit I learned while researching this past week: there were other copies made, including one for the King of Portugal and a third copy went to Padre Giovanni Batista Martini, a highly regarded music scholar. But these non-Vatican copies were the plainest, simplest versions. You should be aware, too, that the musical ornamentation changed with every performance. The original musical transcript was, in essence, a jumping off point for even more razzle-dazzle stuff, like the lone voice hitting a breathtaking high C during the four-solo-voice section. The King of Portugal found his version to be even further simplified, nothing like the original. (Probably mostly Gregorian chant — bet he was thinking, “what a rip-off!”) He complained, apparently. And likely clammed up and went to Rome for Holy Week so he could hear the infinitely better version. (Story has it that Emperor Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor, also had a copy. But wait. What was a Holy Roman Emperor’s role after the Roman Empire had gone kaputt? Leopold was born in Vienna. Became King of the Hungarians, too. Not Italian or Roman at all. I’m so confused. I’m stopping here, because all of this asks more questions than it answers.)

Back to Mozart. After Easter, he and his father continued on with their Italian travels. Later in the year, they encountered Dr. Charles Burney, a noted music historian, who, upon his return to England, published the un-publishable Miserere in 1771. To thicken the intrigue, it should be mentioned that Burney also met up with Padre Martini, who owned the third copy. And to thicken the thickening, the Mozarts also met with Martini during the course of that Italy year, when the young Wolfgang studied with him. But I don’t see Padre Martini bringing out his copy of the Miserere as a study guide. Why risk excommunication and thus hell and eternal damnation for a music lesson with a precocious teen?

So whose copy did Burney use when he published? Who can know for sure? Mozart’s hand-written copy did not survive to confirm or detract the story. As for the Pope threatening excommunication, well, it would have looked bad to accuse a priest or a King or excommunicate a fourteen-year-old musical prodigy. I’m not sure how Burney got out of it so easily, but I think by that time, the Pope sort of shrugged and said, “Whatever. Our version is still the best. Come check us out next Holy Week and see for yourselves!”

images-406

PS: A website called Ancient Groove Music has a fascinating, in depth take on the stories surrounding Allegri’s Miserere and Mozart. If you want to dig deeper (and have the easy, cherished legend potentially stomped on) check it out HERE.

PPS: One last fascinating follow-up story, blogged by Ed Newton-Rex HERE. “In 1831, Felix Mendelssohn decided to make his own transcription — and the version he heard happened to be sung higher than originally intended (a fourth higher, to be precise). This wouldn’t have been of much consequence had it not been for an innocent mistake made 50 years later. When the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians was being put together in 1880, a small section of Mendelssohn’s higher transcription was accidentally inserted into a passage of the Miserere being used to illustrate an article. This mistake was then reproduced in various editions over the next century, eventually becoming the accepted version. And the result is the most famous and most moving passage of the piece — a beautiful top C sung by a treble soloist, pretty much the highest note found in the entire choral repertoire.”

San Francisco Symphony and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem

images-381

On June 12th, forty-nine people were killed in a gay night club in Orlando, with fifty-three more wounded, in a terrorist attack/hate crime that shook the world. Hours later, James Conlon, guest conducting Sunday afternoon at the San Francisco Symphony, took the mic at the start of the performance. He told us they would be dedicating the performance of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem to the victims and families of the massacre. He spoke about Britten, a passionate and dedicated pacifist, and then asked the audience to stand and observe a moment of silence.

We did. There are few things more powerful than pure silence in a crowded concert hall.

Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem couldn’t have been more appropriate for the occasion. Britten dedicated this 1940 composition to the memory of his parents, both of whom he’d lost in the six years previous. It was composed, as well, on the eve of World War II (ironically, initially a commission by the Japanese). There are three movements, the “Lacrymosa,” “Dies irae” and “Requiem aeternam.” In twenty short minutes, we experience a mournful funeral dirge, a rapid, harsh “dance of death” and the wrenching, emotional release of the requiem. On a good day it would stir your soul. Yesterday, it reached out, grabbed my heart and squeezed and squeezed. Particularly during moments in the second movement when the percussion sounded like gun shots. And the intention of the piece was so pure—surely from Britten as he composed it; from Conlon at the podium and the musicians playing; from those of us in the audience listening and thinking about the massacre. It wasn’t just music we were listening to; it rose higher and became bigger than the notes. It transported all of us into the spirit of what had happened. The drama, the sorrow, the chaos, the loss. The final movement, more gentle now, and amid unspeakable loss is both grief and—is it too soon to call it healing?

images-382

People all around me were wiping their eyes. The music subsided, coming to a quiet close. The silence at the end, once again, was absolute, as powerful as the music had been. Conlon left the stage before the trickles of applause (we’d been asked to hold our applause) could morph into full-on clapping. And that, too, seemed so powerful to me. As a guest conductor, he’d earned the right to bask in applause for a job beautifully done. He chose not to take it. The musicians, too. As they rose for the pause between pieces, breaking the spell, I saw a musician wipe his eye, one more poignant, powerful thing atop another.

The Britten was a difficult act to follow, as you might imagine. But life moves on, doesn’t it? And it was time for a young artist debut, Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat. It was great. It soothed and entertained. Lisiecki provided an elegant, nuanced touch, neither too heavy nor too fluff. I know all of this sounds a bit trite, but the Britten had slayed me and I could only sit there, a sodden heap, and allow Lisiecki and Mozart to gently lift me and my spirits back up. Lisiecki, at 21, seems to embody all that is young, fresh, hopeful, filled with promise. The Mozart did too. And the program’s concluder, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, was yet another ideal touch, performed with energy and warmth. It was as if the two latter selections were there to support the gravity of the Britten, and gently return us back to a cheerful, refreshed state.

There are different reactions to traumatic news and acts of terrible, senseless violence. Finger pointing, grandstanding. Retreating to defensive positions and firing verbal volleys. Citing the incident as evidence that [insert the cause/stance you despise] doesn’t work, and why we need [insert favorite cause]. But this musical response to the violence was so powerful and beautiful. It said, “we believe in art and its power to rise above ugliness, pettiness, violence. We don’t need  words to carry out a positive, resonating message.”

images-384

How proud, how honored I feel, to be a part of a community and a city that cares deeply about classical music, diversity, tolerance, and art. One that will speak out, in the face of something so violent and hate-filled. People try to argue that classical music has lost its relevancy and is unnecessary in today’s culture. Oh, how far from true. And to Joshua Kosman, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle* that Thursday night’s efforts with the same program sounded “wan and inconsequential,” I’m here to tell you, Mr. Kosman. You should have been there Sunday afternoon.

Bravissimi, and heartfelt thanks, to James Conlon, Jan Lisiecki and the San Francisco Symphony musicians. Sunday’s performance was the kind of experience I’ll never forget.

PS: Some good reading: Lisa Houston for San Francisco Classical Voice, interviews Conlon, about music, its power, the Britten piece and Britten himself HERE. And here’s another article with interesting details about Conlon and Lisiecki both from Examiner.com

*I suppose I should link Kosman’s review, although to read his grousing now seems downright petty, never mind that he is an excellent reviewer and what he heard on Thursday was what he heard on Thursday. By Sunday, we were living in a different world. So, Google it yourself if you want to read something intelligent but negative. For me, I’d rather focus on everything that was good about Sunday’s performance, which is to say, everything.

Leonidas Kavakos, the Sibelius VC, the SFS, and the truth

images-336

This past weekend, acclaimed violinist Leonidas Kavakos performed the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. As you might know, I’m a big fan of this concerto. (Elaborated HERE.) I found Kavakos’ interpretation to be magnificent. Soul-stirring. No, not perfect. Sometimes a note didn’t land precisely right on the money. And there were moments where the pacing seemed to involve conductor Michael Tilson Thomas trying to keep up with Kavakos’ propulsive playing. But that’s the third movement of the Sibelius for you. In my mind, the performance transcended the tiny flaws; it transcended everything. It had such power. Kavakos had found that place of haunting, bittersweet beauty, where technical brilliance meets vulnerability, and he played the concerto, particularly the second movement, from that space. The performance was so wonderful, in some ways, because there were some imperfections. It lent the piece humanity.

Joshua Kosman, longtime music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle didn’t like Kavakos’ interpretation quite so much as I. Here’s what he had to say. “It was an awkward, unpersuasive performance, wayward of pitch and rhythm and marked by what seemed like the violinist’s utter indifference to what the orchestra was doing at any given moment. Thomas’ efforts to keep everyone together were practically poignant.” (You can find the whole review HERE.)

Well. Ouch. I should mention that I saw Sunday afternoon’s performance and Kosman reviewed Thursday night’s performance. I understand what Kosman was saying, however; I saw glimmers of this within Sunday’s performance. But, even reading this, I will stand my ground. This was one of the most stirring performances of the Sibelius I’ve ever seen.

So. Was it a wildly successful performance, or an uneven one? Should the critic have bashed Kavakos’ performance so unequivocally, or was he simply doing his job?

He was doing his job, of course. I myself have a gig as a dance reviewer for Bachtrack.com, whereby I attend ballet performances as a member of the press. It’s a funky feeling, being there as a judge. After the first review I submitted, back in October 2013, the editor responded by saying, “well, it sounds like you really enjoyed it — this is a very kind review — but it’s got to have something you found lacking, for balance. It’s got to be objective. You’ve got to be objective, as a member of the press.”

images-337

Dang. Not my skill. And it’s one of the reasons that I love attending the symphony simply as a subscriber. I like not being objective. I like riding the storm of my subjectivity. I like getting weepy and effusive and gushing out, “it stirred my soul,” and “whoa, Kleenex box, please!”

So. I loved Kavakos’ performance. I was so blown away by its power that I all but leapt to my feet right at the end, cheering Kavakos and the SFS musicians. What an astonishing ride he’d taken us on. But I looked around me and realized not everyone seemed to feel the same. Others in the audience were sitting, clapping politely. That was all. Really? I thought. Really? Was it those missed notes that had people thinking it was like a figure skating score in the Olympics, where points got deducted, and therefore the performance didn’t merit a standing ovation? Did he not look glossy enough, or sway enough, for their tastes? Eventually others rose, some in an almost dutiful sense, and Kavakos got the standing ovation his performance merited.

A first bow, amid now-enthusiastic applause. Called back for a second bow, amid the applause. But then the applause died down, too soon, which filled me with dismay. The guy deserved to come out for a third bow, minimum. I clapped more furiously, but alas, I am but one pair of clapping hands.

Then something interesting happened. As the applause died, there was a low, soft rumbling sound, and I realized it was coming from the stage, the musicians’ feet. It was their way of applauding, because of course their hands are full of instruments. The musicians were in agreement with me, apparently. Kavakos’ performance was far too good to let him walk off with only two bows.

It was the coolest thing, that soft thudding sound of their feet, the string players’ bows tapping against their music stands, broad smiles on all the musicians’ faces. Watching it, my heart swelled. Can a soloist have any greater compliment paid than this? A roaring audience, okay, fine, good for the ego. But there’s a sort of herd mentality about a roaring standing ovation. I have succumbed to it myself, rising to my feet because everyone around me did (usually this is one of the superstar soloists with a household name who’d produced a technically flawless performance, quite possibly at the expense of a sense of genuine heart). But when every member of the orchestra is beaming, thumping their feet, well, that’s saying something. Because a fellow musician understands. It’s not about the missing notes. It’s about finding the heart of the piece, the burning core, the composer’s intention, and sharing this gem with the audience.

Happily, the audience picked up the applauding pace once again, keeping at it till Kavakos came back onstage for one more bow. And as a reward, we were treated to a gorgeous, crystalline Bach partita encore. Nice.

kavakos-leonidas-w

Kosman’s review went on to praise the rest of the performance, and indeed, the two other pieces, Sibelius’ “The Swan of Tuonela” and Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, were both brilliantly rendered. I loved everything about the entire afternoon’s performance. But I’ll tell you what. During that 100 minute ride home, down the Peninsula and through the mountains, it was Kavakos’ rendition of the Sibelius that still gripped at my heart. That, and the image of all the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony stomping their feet in praise of another artist.

Well done, San Francisco Symphony.

Henri Dutilleux & “Tout un Monde Lointain”

images-311

“Tout un monde lointain, absent, Presque defunct, vit dans tes profondeurs, forêt aromatique,” (A whole distant world, absent, barely alive, dwells in your depths, oh scented forest.)

Mstislav Rostropovich commissioned this cello concerto. The poetry of Charles Baudelaire inspired it, albeit loosely. Pierre Boulez disdained its composer, Henri Dutilleux, and his work, which might be why Henri Dutilleux isn’t as famous as Pierre Boulez, who played such a big part in the contemporary classical music scene in post WW II France.

The concerto’s full title is “Tout un monde lointain… (‘A Whole Distant World…’) for Cello and Orchestra.” I heard it for the first time in 2011, performed by the San Francisco Symphony, featuring cellist Gautier Capuçon. It begins with an ever-so-soft, shimmery sound, a stiff metal brush against a drum head that commences the first movement. Dutilleux claimed that at the night of the concerto’s premiere in Aix-en-Provence, right as the concert began, in that instant, “a new breeze began gently to rustle the leaves of the plane tree, like the sound of waves and very similar to what I had been searching for when I wrote the score.” Which is a pretty cool thing to have happen. And thus, under that magic spell, the cello begins, offering its contemplative reply.

images-314

Listening, I felt as if I’d been transported inside a movie. One of those older ones, the kind you saw first as a kid, and it utterly engrossed you, encapsulated you, and of course it had a great soundtrack; it was all about the soundtrack, and was likely a mystery, a black and white one, a thoughtful movie, something sort of Twilight Zone-ish.

French-born and trained Gautier Capuçon, as the soloist, was sublime. This was the second time I’d seen him perform and his efforts never fail to render me starry-eyed with admiration and infatuation. He had a thoughtful, intelligent way of playing the concerto, head angled in, as if he were finding the notes, the music, that was there, deep within the cello. He wasn’t making music so much as releasing it into the air. I can’t decide if his stellar playing is in part due to his charismatic good looks and demeanor or that the two simply go hand in hand with him. I first saw him perform the Schumann Cello Concerto in 2009 and, like this night, was completely wowed by him and his performance. My verdict: he is both sublimely talented and pleasing to watch perform. (Check back here at The Classical Girl in a few weeks’  time, when I’ll devote an entire blog post to the exceptional Mr. Capuçon.)

Dutilleux, a mid-to-late 20th century composer who died in 2013, was not a serialist, a twelve-tone-ist, a modernist, a sentimentalist. He shunned “isms” and set styles, and composed from his own well of individualism and carefully crafted creativity. His career was one of “quality not quantity” and won him many accolades and commissions from world-class musicians and ensembles, although he was certainly not a household name, even within the classical music world. Plenty of classical music aficionados have never heard of him or his music. Which is a shame, because this guy composed some damned incredible music. Which is why I’m glad I have The Classical Girl to give Henri Dutilleux a post-humous shout-out.

images-315

His music is striking. Moody, evocative, conjuring up colors and complex feelings and moods that you’re not sure how to define. And yet, lest we all get too sentimental, in alternating movements of “Tout un monde lointain…” the cello gets feisty, the music harsher, more dissonant. The brass lets out a blast and there’s all sorts of drama going on. Like cockroaches crawling around in the night and you turn on the light in a room and they all scatter in a panic.

But just when the third movement of “Tout un Monde Lointain” had me thinking I didn’t really like the concerto that much, the fourth movement brought the strumming of a harp and a return of the dreaminess, albeit with an edge to it—an uneasiness, a mystery, but the kind that draws you in, captivates you. Like seeing a blood-red rose poking out of a snow-covered yard on an overcast winter twilight, and you don’t have shoes on, so you don’t go to check it out closer, you just marvel at the sight. It’s cold and you’re alone, but there’s that compelling, mysterious sight.

The concerto’s final movement brings the listener back to agitation, lively discord, melodic but not, with the cello’s final notes just sort of trailing off, as ambiguous an ending as they come. I left the concert hall an hour later, slightly discomfited, not sure exactly what I remembered, or would remember. Perhaps just the memory of Gautier Capuçon’s artistry, those slower, pensive moments where he was bent over his cello, finding those notes, releasing them into the air for the spellbound audience to catch.

images-316

This article first appeared, in different form, at Violinist.com. You can read it HERE.