Joshua Kosman gave this concert a glowing review. I'm willing to bet that some things sounded better where he was sitting (I was once again under the overhang, this time in the last row of the orchestra), but my major complaint about the Italian has to do with tempos. Joshua hints at the speed of the first movement with "sacrificed a bit of momentum in favor of textural clarity," but I'll be blunt and say that it was just too slow. Yes, you did get to hear more detail than might have been audible at a faster tempo, but it was not only too slow, it was lacking in rhythmic sharpness and crackle. The last movement had a similar problem. It started out fast enough, then, I swear to you, it got slower. Oy. Both the movements lacked internal drive and, yes, momentum. The middle movements were fine; the minuet especially graceful.
Now, here I'd better confess that I grew up with Toscanini's recording of the Italian, a classic, and as you might guess, it is on the driven side. I also have the Mackerras, which has much of the speed and snap of the Toscanini while sounding less driven and more relaxed. Masur's performance had a certain softness to it that just didn't work for me, and it wasn't helped by poorer coordination of entries than is typical of the SFS. I will say that I was happy to hear scattered applause between some of the movements, though I wasn't pleased enough with the performance to join in myself.
I wonder how much the unusual seating arrangement had to do with the slightly messy entries. Masur had the flutes front and center, approximately where they would usually be, but with, at most, one row of violins or violas between him and the flutes. The oboes were to the audience right of the flutes, still on the floor. The other winds and brass were off the right on the risers, with the cellos in their usual places, so they were almost facing the flutes and oboes.
One aspect of the seating worked extremely well, though, and other conductors should take note of it: the basses were against the back wall, just off center, where the brass usually are. The bass lines were quite a bit more present and audible than they usually are, which helped the sound balance quite a lot. Masur used fewer than the full complement of violins, but with double winds and bass only, there were no problems hearing them . (In my experience, the violins are most likely to disappear under the onslaught of large wind and brass sections, perhaps a result of the poor acoustics of Davies.)
Now, the Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Overture was fine, though the first violin entry sounded weirdly scattered, with mostly lovely playing. Again, I would have liked a bit more snap to the playing.
For this performance, SFS chose to have an actor, Itay Tiran, as what they called a "narrator." Well, no, he was not a narrator: he didn't read a summary of the plot as the performance progressed, he read, and acted, excerpts from the play. He did this extremely well, but I hope everyone in the audience was familiar with the play or had read the program notes very, very carefully. Otherwise, you'd never be able to figure out what was going on.
Looking at the score - yes, I happen to have a full score of A Midsummer Night's Dream hanging around - it looks as though the performance followed Mendelssohn's specifications fairly closely. I think they added some of the text from the play to the cues in the score - I can't find "The iron tongue of midnight hath tolled twelve," but I certainly heard it last night.
Now, I am sure lots of people in the audience loved this. It didn't work so well for me. I mostly found it distracting, because I was there to hear a musical performance. Yes, I'd love to see the play with the incidental music played in place! but this performance was not that.
The San Francisco Girls Chorus was on hand for the two choral numbers, with soprano Susannah Biller and mezzo Maya Lahyani taking the solos. The chorus sounded lovely, just right and with very good diction. I was actually shocked by how bad Biller sounded; her phrasing was clumsy, her voice thin, and she sounded squawky in register changes. Lahyani sounded fine.
Biller and Lahyani were placed behind the narrator toward the back of the stage, and I just don't understand why.
So, a mixed bag of an evening! And I think it might be the last time I sit under the damn overhang.