Summer of Discontent in San Francisco

25/07/2012

 Shostakovich, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven: Karen Gomyo (violin), Gilles Vonsattel (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Francis (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA, 13/14.7.2012 (WA)

 Maybe I was biased by the silly titles of the San Francisco Symphony’s recent summer season concerts—“My Classic Russian Favorites” last Friday, and “My Classic Beethoven” on Saturday—but I found neither concert (both in Davies Symphony Hall) as enjoyable as I would have expected. Adventurous programming is nice—orchestras could use more of it—but there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing warhorses, and I enjoyed seeing two young soloists featured, the violinist Karen Gomyo playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on Friday, and the pianist Gilles Vonsattel playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on Saturday. But to take familiar pieces—Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in this case—and play them badly ruins them, and makes one suspect that the programming was based on economy (orchestral standards need fewer rehearsals, rehearsals cost money, fewer rehearsals mean less money spent) rather than merit.

I felt guilty during the concerts, thinking about the orchestra not sounding as good as they should have, because I was surrounded entirely by people who seemed to love every minute. In fact, of the five San Francisco Symphony concerts I’ve now seen, these two had the most enthusiastic audiences by far. In part, I think this had something to do with the audience composition—these concerts were the summer season (not the regular subscription series), tickets were (slightly) less expensive, and as a result the audience was younger.

Also though, there was some pandering to the audience: each night’s encore, whether by the orchestra or the soloist, was chosen by online audience voting. This led to an embarrassingly sloppy rendition of the “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker on Friday night (the audience’s clapping their hands in time didn’t help, but it never does), and on Saturday a beautiful, meditative performance by Mr. Vonsattel of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata.

The contrast on Friday and Saturday between the two guest soloists was striking. Ms. Gomyo has no lack of technical facility, and her sound was clear (steely, even) and projected well throughout. Yet her stylistic choices seemed arbitrary, and I doubted whether they were really choices at all. Her first and second movements languished at every opportunity, her tempos fluctuating with each new phrase; she failed to embrace the hyper-romanticism of the concerto with tone and color, rather than with wildly elongated, dirge-like melodies. Her third movement, a technical and relentless Allegro vivacissimo, was an improvement, if only because the orchestra seemed less pained, the solo part having many fewer opportunities to take its sweet time.

Mr. Vonsattel’s Beethoven First Piano Concerto the next night was a welcome relief. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare two such dissimilar pieces, written 80 years apart and for different instruments, but I was struck by the difference in the approaches of the soloists. Whereas Ms. Gomyo never seemed quite at home with the orchestra, Mr. Vonsattel exuded confidence, playing easily and, seemingly, with pleasure. There was nothing labored about his Beethoven, and phrasing and tempo seemed like conscious choices—the performance motivated by a comprehensive understanding of the music, of how the solo part fits in with the ensemble.

It might be kinder simply to sweep the rest of each program—Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on Friday, and Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Symphony No. 5 on Saturday—under the rug, never to be discussed again. I don’t think these performances were representative of the true quality of the San Francisco Symphony, but were rather a product of few rehearsals with a guest conductor (the somewhat-hyperactive but generally-competent Michael Francis) than anything else. That’s no excuse to perform sloppily, but it’s also no reason to damn the Symphony.

Considering these two concerts, it’s hard to avoid the “What’s Wrong with Classical Music?” question. Both performances brought to light a common problem in orchestral programming: how do you play interesting programs—some combination of new music, underplayed old music, and orchestral standards—while maintaining consistently high quality and selling enough tickets?

Sam Bergman, a violist and writer for the Minnesota Orchestra’s excellent blog, Inside the Classics, wrote recently of “manufactured greatness”—the phenomenon of overhyping everything to the point that events themselves, whether performances or anything else, can’t possibly live up to the audience’s expectations. He writes, “These attempts at manufacturing greatness do a great deal of damage to those of us tasked with striving for it night after night. Because if we’re only worth something when we exceed every expectation, we’re worthless when we only exceed most.” It’s true: in some ways it’s unfair to expect to hear an extraordinary performance of Beethoven 5 or Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at a summer season concert. I wanted to feel, though, that the orchestra was at least striving to play its best.

Wells Andres

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