Saturday, February 03, 2024

Jukka-Pekka Saraste at San Francisco Symphony


Davies Symphony Hall

When Herbert Blomstedt, age 96, took a fall fairly recently, his doctors advised him to limit his upcoming travel, which meant that orchestras on two continents needed to find substitutes for concerts he had planned to conduct. One of Blomstedt's engagements was with San Francisco Symphony, where he was music director for a decade and where he holds the title of Conductor Laureate. (MTT is the Music Director Laureate, if you're wondering.) He is loved in San Francisco, for his excellent conducting, humanity, and astounding longevity, so of course there was disappointment that he wouldn't be conducting this season.

SFS hired the Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste to take over Blomstedt's program. Both of the planned works were retained; you would expect any major-league conductor to have Schubert 6 and Beethoven 7 in their repertory. Saraste is that, having held a number of important posts, and having recently succeeded Susanna Mälkki at the Helsinki Philharmonic.

I was not happy with what I heard. I found Saraste's interpretations on the dull side. The orchestral sound was blocky and undifferentiated, lacking sonic clarity without a compensating sense of warmth. Sometimes the winds and brass would be too prominent when all they were doing was providing background rhythmic punctuation. Transitions stumbled and didn't help the listener with the works' structure. 

The dullness and lack of sonic differentiation were big problems in the Beethoven, where there's so much thematic repetition - everything sounded the same. Interpretively, there wasn't much wit or grace. Saraste's tempos were on the quick side, but that wasn't a problem in and of itself; we've heard some mighty fast Beethoven from Esa-Pekka Salonen, and, well, he can make that work, and has, in the 2nd, 3rd, and oh, right, 7th symphonies.

Everything I'm saying here applies about equally to the Schubert and the Beethoven. See Joshua Kosman's reviews of last night and a program in 1997, which I link to below. I'm curious what the SFCV reviewer thought.

  • Me, writing about Salonen's LvB 7th
  • Joshua Kosman on Saraste's 1997 performances at SFS. This is an excellent description of what I heard last night: "The slow introduction to the first movement moved in herky-jerky chunks; the orchestral balances, in the two outer movements especially, seemed calculated for maximum weight and minimum detail...Beethoven's fluid melodies, meanwhile -- again most regrettably in the outer movements -- were casually dispatched, as though they were merely decorative gold braid atop a Sherman tank. Only Saraste's zesty reading of the scherzo proved convincing."
Tattling: Toward the end of the Beethoven scherzo - say, maybe a minute or 90 seconds before the end - a phone went off in the row behind me. And went off and went off and went off. It was playing...piano music? I turned around and looked at the person whose phone it obviously was. The patron next to me did the same. The woman sitting next to the guilty party gestured to him and I think maybe tapped him a couple of times. She must have been an intimate because eventually she started rifling through his pockets. Eventually, she found the phone and silenced it, but only after the scherzo had ended and the last movement had begun. This episode was unnerving and unpleasant, because of the interruption and because of its length. There's a reason that SFS has polite announcements before every concert asking audience members to silence all electronic devices. (For the last two weeks, flutist and principal piccolo Cathy Payne has been the orchestra member whose recorded announcement is used.)

I do not care how you dress. I support applause between movements. I hope that you won't wear perfume. And I deeply wish that you would silence your phone/pager/other potentially noisy electronic device before the concert starts and at the end of intermission, if you've turned it back on.=-=


rchrd said...

I find applause between movements very jarring and disturbing ... about as bad as a cellphone going off.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Applause between movements was commonplace until the 1920s, and today mileage certainly varies a lot. I would personally like to normalize it again.

David Bratman said...

I favor permission to applaud between movements if it's genuinely spontaneous appreciation, and does not become dutiful. But I see no way in which that wouldn't begin to happen.

rchrd said...

The problem with applause between movements is that the conductor (and composer) lose control of the spacing. The conductor might feel that a short interval is better than a long interval between two specific movements, or the opposite. But with applause the conductor loses that control and must wait for the applause to end. Also, the composer might wish that the audience keep in their mind's ear the last notes lingering before the first notes of the next movement. Again, applause wipes that away.
No. Only silence between movements. (And the occasional coughing and sneezing, and deep breaths.)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Conductors are perfectly capable of anticipating applause and planning for it, and also that conductors should be flexible about this.

I've also seen conductors who have stupendous control over audience behavior. Did you see Dalia Stasevska the other week? She held off the applause at the end of the "New World" by, I dunno, 10 seconds?

I'm familiar with a few instances of a composer requesting pauses of a particular length between movements in the score, and more, many more, where the orchestra is given instructions to attack the next movement without pause. But the composer not only isn't there, but in most cases of the music performed by orchestras can't be there because they are dead.

Announcements can be made to the audience (and printed in programs, if anyone reads them), requesting specific behavior between movements, and I'm fine with that. But never forget that in the 19th c., composers expected applause between certain movements. Should we completely disregard this? I'd say no, not when the music is practically demanding applause.

David Bratman said...

Not only did 19C composers expect applause between movements, but they specifically requested no pause between movements if they didn't want applause. There are such indications in scores: as I recall, Mendelssohn's Scottish and Schumann's Fourth are such.

As for conductors, it's common practice to run finales attacca after the third movement, and there'd be no problem warding off applause in that case. Regarding the holding off of applause after the real end, a good conductor like Stasevska can keep the audience spellbound by just holding their arms out until they're good and ready. If the audience ignores that, the conductor was not commanding enough.