Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sweet Spot

I went to the Bernard Labadie program at SF Symphony last night, a concert that, left to my own devices, I would have skipped entirely: Excerpts from Gluck's Orfeo, Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte, Mozart, Clarinet Concerto, Bizet, Symphony in C. But my girlfriend wanted to see it, so back in January I picked up a couple of inexpensive tickets during the sale.

The Gluck and Ravel were strictly snoozers. The Gluck is uninteresting to start with, and it was not strongly conducted. The Ravel was worse, startlingly lumpy and thick, and very un-French. Joshua Kosman's review noted that Labadie's strength is in peppier music, and he's right. The Gluck and Ravel suffered accordingly.

I'm glad to have heard the Symphony's new principal clarinetist, the wonderful Carey Bell, strut his stuff in a beautifully played, and marvelously ornamented, account of the Mozart, but I have heard the piece approximately five thousand times and couldn't bring myself to be especially enthused about hearing it yet again, no matter how masterful the performance. I'd rather hear Bell play the Nielsen or Lindberg or something else from the last hundred years. The Bizet is a fine piece, especially for a teenager, about on the scale of one of the first four Schubert symphonies and with a decided Gallic air to it. Still, it runs on a bit too long, and occasionally Bizet's inexperience shows. Some of the modulations are completely unprepared, as though he knew where he was going but not quite how to get there.

My problem with this program is not with any individual piece. It's that it could have been taken from a typical two-hour stretch of KDFC. It's comfortable and breezy, nothing challenging. It's all music most of us have heard a little too often. Other than when Carey Bell was playing, it never quite got my full attention.

There was one unexpected benefit, though: by some miracle my randomly-assigned seats in the second tier were sonic perfection for the evening's orchestral configuration of about 30 to 40 players. The strings were always clearly audible, all of them; the orchestral sound transparent. It makes me wonder if one of the problems in Davies is that it's acoustically balanced for a small orchestra, not a full-sized symphony; I hears lots of the big-orchestra pieces there, and they almost always blare a bit and sound poorly balanced and blended unless I'm in the orchestra or terrace.

So, for those times when a reduced orchestra is in use, remember this: Section GG, Row F, Seats 10 and 12.

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