San Francisco Symphony at the Proms

Playtime is over… Rehearsals started (for us) at the Royal Opera House today. But I still managed to fit in two Proms – yesterday after an afternoon in the office, today a totally crazy day (Sunday!) which started with a lunch party in Barnet (thanks, Tony and all – very nice collection of family and old friends, sorry I couldn’t stay longer), then three hours of Iphigénie en Tauride, then a dash to the Albert Hall for a 7.00 start…

The San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas (or Captain Beaky and his Band, as I shall henceforth unavoidably think of them), are one of the world’s top orchestras, and these concerts were a rare treat.  Yesterday’s began with Charles Ives’ Third Symphony, which rather passed me by (I know I ought to ‘get’ Charles Ives, as he was a great guy and I love his ideas, but it largely hasn’t happened yet).  Then the final scene of Salome, which was terrific (and reminded me why I love this opera;  can’t wait for our revival later this season) – though the orchestration seemed strangely subdued, maybe because MTT was trying (not always successfully) to avoid drowning Deborah Voigt – a problem when the orchestra is stacked up behind her instead of hidden away in a pit.  She did in fact sound a bit underpowered, and her German pronunciation seemed lispy and American (I was standing next to a German couple but didn’t pluck up courage to ask them what they thought). 

Then came Shostakovich 5, which was a knockout.  Such characterful orchestral sounds – this is not just subjective, as I was hearing overtones in double basses, trumpets and even violins that I’m not normally aware of in a live concert setting.  I particularly loved the reedy, uninhibited oboe (a very American, slightly old-fashioned sound), and the big jolly bassoon, and the fact that the brass (especially the horn solos) were always spot on, totally secure and in tune.  A tremendous performance.  Sometimes hard to see how Michael T T does it – his beat (waving those incredibly long arms about) often seeming to bear no relation to the music that comes out. It obviously works for them, though.  (Difficult to tell whether there actually was a certain lack of synchronization at times – that darned Albert Hall echo makes it impossible to be sure.)

The encore was Bernstein’s Candide Overture, at a rollicking pace.  When it came to the juicy second-subject tune, the German lady next to me burst into tears.  Bless.

And so to tonight – Mahler 7.  Wow!  80 minutes without a break.  Last night’s security wasn’t quite there (it was a hot and sticky night) – unfortunately starting with a ‘split’ on the tenor horn’s first note.  But it’s a very difficult piece!  And the offstage cowbells weren’t distant enough – they just sounded silly instead of mysterious.  No other criticisms…

Of all Mahler’s symphonies, No. 7 is the weirdest – almost as if he is deliberately confounding expectations, pushing boundaries, stretching possibilities.  Sardonic, forward-looking, subversive, bizarre.  (Great programme note by Andrew Huth, by the way.)  The first movement is (in places) the closest Mahler came to ‘atonality’ (I don’t count the ‘unwritten’ Tenth, which I don’t quite believe in as a real piece, though who knows where he was going);  the ‘shadowy’ waltz third movement is pointillist, not to say avant-garde, in its random flinging of bumps and peeps out of the dark.  The last movement is always a puzzle:  my ‘take’ on it is that Mahler thought ‘How do you end a symphony?  With a huge blaze of trumpets. drums, fanfares, string scales, screaming woodwind, all very loud and way over the top.  Right, well, we’ll start with that, and then work backwards to see how to get there from as many different directions as possible’.  Well, who knows.  The end result raised the roof, as MTT and the SFS reached a massive culmination that fully justified the musical arguments that arrived at that point.
(No encore!)
My feet hurt, my muscles ache, my head is swimming.  But I’m so glad I didn’t miss these two Proms.

Explore posts in the same categories: concerts, orchestras, Proms

Tags: , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: