Sunday, April 05, 2009

Ashkenazy and Gaffigan Conduct the San Francisco Symphony

Not at the same time, though that might have been fun.

I marvel at Ashkenazy's comparatively limited physical conducting skills and what he conveys (I had an excellent view of him), and even more at the fact that he managed to make Beethoven's 4th piano concerto, the best piece on the program by a long shot, into a bore. He was conducting, not playing; I was in an awkward seat (row C orch, far audience left), a bad vantage point for hearing the soloist well, and he sounded no better than decent.

The opening work, Steven Gerber's 'MUsic in Dark Times" was junk; very trite and uninteresting. I can't believe he used Yankee Doodle in the piece with a straight face, which seems just bizarre to me in this day and age. Boring, tonal, zzzzz.

The orchestra didn't applaud the piano soloist and was at best polite to Ashkenazy and Gerber. That tells me a great deal about their opinions of all three. They went NUTS for Argerich a few weeks ago. I saw that program too and she was magnificent.

It also says something about Ashkenazy that the work that came off the best was "Belshazzar's Feast," a choral extravangaza by William Walton. It is what I think of as great second-rate music, a class of music I happen to like a lot. It's really a good piece, or at least a lot of FUN. I admit that there was a place where he went from extreme grandeur to British cowpat so fast I started laughing - in a good way, of course. The chorus was great (yay, Ragnar!) and John Relyea a very impressive soloist, though he is holding so much tension in his jaw that I thought his head might explode.

This is the second time I've heard Ashkenazy conduct, and both times I've thought him dull and without much in the way of ideas. I'll have more to say about that in another posting, I hope.

The Gaffigan program was a lot better, though...well, the opening Haydn 52nd was not good. Dull articulation throughout the whole orchestra, rhythms without much snap, altogether too legato, with the 3rd and 4th movements much too slow. The minuet, which is marked allegretto, has the spirit and sound of a scherzo and ought to be played like one. The last movement, marked presto, went at an allegro, and again...would have been so much better faster.

The closing Mozart 39 was much better, an excellent performance all around. I don't get how someone with a nice feel for Mozart blew the Haydn so badly - anyone have ideas??

In between was a great performance of Thomas Ades's violin concerto, called Concentric Paths, by Leila Josefewicz. It's a wonderful piece, complex, beautiful, full of ideas, which I'd heard a couple of years ago at Cabrillo, and I was so glad to hear it again. She is touring it and will be playing it at Cleveland next season.

P. S. Joshua Kosman nailed both of these concerts, though the Haydn I heard wasn't as good as what he apparently heard. He reviews Ashkenazy's here and Gaffigan's here. SFMike at Civic Center talks about the Gaffigan program here.

6 comments:

Dee Trumpet said...

The first movement of Gerber's work was an orchestration of the brass-and-percussion fanfare commissioned by the Voice of America, whose theme song is Yankee Doodle. This was explained in the program notes:

http://www.sfsymphony.org/music/ProgramNotes.aspx?id=37804

Lisa Hirsch said...

I read the program notes, and they didn't change my opinion one bit.

L. Strether said...

I attended the Saturday Gaffigan/Josefowicz performance and all three pieces were very well played.

I completely agree with you on Gerber's work, but for me, that evening was a complete failure on every level.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ah, not a Walton fan? :)

calimac said...

Perhaps it may have something to do with the fact that 39, along with the Haffner, is one of the more gallant of Mozart's late symphonies, while Haydn's 52 is, of course, anything but. Your description makes it sound as if they tried to play it as if it were.

I'm glad I didn't get to that one after all. I love 52 greatly - it's the work that introduced me to mid-Haydn - and it would have been crushing to hear it softened this way.

sfmike said...

Dear calimac: It wasn't "softened," actually. It just wasn't quite right and didn't bring out the brilliance of the piece.