Sunday, November 07, 2021

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous and Back Again

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Photo by Minna Hartinen, courtesy of San Francisco Symphony

Nobody's perfect, but last week's San Francisco Symphony program (Oct. 28-30, 2021) did leave me wondering what, exactly, Esa-Pekka Salonen was thinking when he made one particular decision: putting Richard Strauss's Symphony for Wind Instruments, known aFröhliche Werkstatt (Happy Workshop), on the program. 

James Keller's program notes describe it as a "big-boned piece, about 40 minutes long", and while that's true, my personal characterization would have been more like "40 minutes of completely worthless rambling, best heard outdoors, preferably far away from me." Seriously, about a third of the way into each movement, I wanted to stand up and shout "Make it STOP", the opposite of applause between movements, but I did not want the ushers coming after me, so I held my tongue and regretted that it's much too loud to simply sleep through. About the best I can say about the thing is that it is vague and meandering, and the first movement is so vague that I couldn't find the damn downbeat. And Salonen himself is not a vague conductor. 

I also found it slightly unnerving that the number of instruments in play did not match what was in the program. For one thing, James Button had a second oboe on a stand next to him, though I never caught whether he played it. For another, the instrumentation claimed "3 clarinets, basset horn, and Eb clarinet." What I saw was five players, three clarinets (played by Carey Bell, Jerome Simas, clarinetist whose name I don't know), basset horn, and alto clarinet, with Simas swapping his clarinet for an Eb. I think. (Apologies; I don't know the names of the basset horn and alto clarinet players either.) So there were actually six single reeds up there, not five.

WHATEVER. The rest of the concert was sublime and if I hadn't had a ticket to the last Fidelio at SFO and plans for dinner with friends, I would have gone back and quietly slipped out for the Strauss.

There was a bit of a surprise before the concert started, in that the opening work, Anders Hillborg's neKongsgaard Variations, is for a small string orchestra, but there was a piano sitting at the left rear of the stage, where the piano is generally placed when it's part of the orchestra, for example, in Petrouchka. And lurking in its neighborhood, even playing it occasionally, was Yefim Bronfman, the soloist for Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, which took up the second half of the program.

Hillborg was there for the concert, because these were the first SFS (and I believe United States) performances of the piece. He was quite droll in introducing it, but I did not take notes and can't recall what he said except that he was not going to be giving a piano demonstration in advance of the performance, but Bronfman would. That's because Hillborg's variations are based on the Arietta from the second movement of Beethoven's piano sonata no. 32, Op. 111. This is a most beautiful theme that Beethoven himself builds a monumental set of variations around, and Bronfman gave a mesmerizing account of it, so gorgeous and sensitive that I would have been perfectly happy if he'd played the whole thing. 

The Kongsgaard Variations are necessarily very different, in sonority, in approach, in harmonic language. Hillborg doesn't develop the theme as such; he sets it, or echoes of it, in a variety of styles ranging over the centuries. It is a perfectly lovely piece, played with great poise and an inward quality by Salonen and the orchestra, and featuring solos for the principal violin, viola, and cello. I hope to hear it again and I hope that it will be recorded.

The Beethoven Third Piano Concerto got the kind of performance you just don't hear very often; for me, it was out there in HOLY MOTHER OF GOD territory. Bronfman played with flawless technique, passion, and real intellectual sinew, the kind of performance where you get a sense of the whole structure of the piece and where every last phrase fits in. For contrast, I saw a performance recently of one of the other Beethoven piano concertos where the soloist knew the notes but not really much else about the piece; the phrases were flat and had little connection to each other, and there was no poetry at all. Bronfman was in every way the opposite of this, and he got a completely earned standing ovation; it was a performance for the ages.

He came back for an encore and I'm pretty sure it was the finale of one of the Beethoven piano sonatas, but I couldn't identify it on the spot and my scores are in storage at the moment. I definitely need to ask the press room about it. I understand that he played Chopin for the encore on Thursday; I was at Friday's concert.

If I had been programming this concert, I would have done it differently: substituted Eine Alpensinfonie for the wind thing, because it's shorter and a lot more fun that what they actually played.  Alternatively, I would have doubled Bronfman's fee, and asked him to play the whole of Op. 111. (You bet that I am now regretting that I missed any solo recitals he might have given locally.)

One more thing about this program, personal to me.  I played flute long ago in a performance of the Beethoven 3rd piano concerto. At the time, Russell Sherman, who was a teacher at the New England Conservatory, was developing a national reputation as an interesting Beethoven player, and so he was  getting invitations to play with various orchestras around the country. He tried out all of the concertos with local-to-Boston orchestras, including the Brandeis U. orchestra, where I was a member of the flute section. So there was a time when I knew this concerto from the inside.

 I had not heard it for at least ten years, though; I go in cycles of listening to Beethoven and then ignoring him for an extended period. Before the concerto started, I was trying to remember how it goes. Then Salonen lifted his baton to give the downbeat and before it descended, the whole thing flooded back. I must say that while I reasonably expected great things of Salonen in certain repertoire, that didn't include Beethoven, which I'd never heard him conduct before this season. But he did great things in the 7th Symphony and this concerto, so I am even happier to have him with SFS.

Update, May 13, 2023: Joshua Kosman's review, calling the Strauss "an intricate and extravagantly pointless piece".

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