Giving the whip to the warhorses

Last night Chad Newsome and I leisurely walked down Market Street, turning onto Grove as we made our way toward Davies Symphony Hall. At #155, a gallery for the San Francisco Arts Commission, we came across a rather odd-looking performance art installation that was about to get underway invloving a boxer, a canvas and a Rube Goldberg kind of Rock-em, Sock-em Robot contraption. Intrigued by the specter of violence, or at least absurdity, we waited to see what would happen next, as we were told it would be 9 rounds of the artist taking direct hits to the face by a glove-covered steel arm as he painted a picture that would somehow comment on or illuminate something about the masochistic nature of being an artist. Well, that last part is my own commentary.

As a small crowd gathered on the sidewalk peering in (we weren't allowed inside), a Beastie Boys tune was broadcast onto the street, people with cameras rolling came into the gallery, followed by the pugilist/artist. That familiar voice (the name of its owner escapes me) came over the speakers and said "Let's get ready to rumbleeeeeee!!!) and the crowd cheered the boxer.

Round one began with the a single brown line descending vertically down the canvas, followed by a direct blow straight to the face. It looked painful. It also looked pretty stupid, and after two more hits we decided there was more rewarding art to be experienced on the other side of Van Ness and off we went. I have no idea if the artist made it through all nine rounds, but supposedly, if he survived, there will be a rematch at the same ring this Friday night.

On paper the program for the San Francisco Symphony this evening looked so safe it could have been created by David Gockley. A Haydn symphony (No. 94, "Surprise"), the 2nd Brahms Piano Concerto and a comtemporary work by Brett Dean entitled "Carlo" which initially seemed like a half-hearted attempt to balance the ultra-conservative program with something for the under-50 crowd. I wanted to attend the concert because the impressive Yefim Bronfman was the soloist, though I wasn't exactly eager to hear any Brahms, as we had a surfeit of him in 2008 (including the same concerto).

I should have known better since it's been my consistent experience with the SFS that the least promising-looking programs (to me) often deliver unexpected delights and cause me to re-assess my opinions about composers or performers. Last night's concert certainly did that as far as Brahms is concerned, thanks to a magnificent performance by Bronfman and strong conducting from David Robertson that had the orchestra sounding like they rarely got a chance to play this stuff and were relishing every moment.

The evening began with Dean's "Carlo" which features nineteen string players accompanied by electronic samples and recordings. Robertson at first looked rather odd keeping time to the pre-recorded track, which raised the question in my mind of what exactly is the role of the conductor in such works, but Roberston made his presence felt as the strings weaved their way through this interesting 25-minute piece whose themes are based on murder and madrigals. It's creepy, with whispers and dark chants coming up through the speakers as the strings play notes that start together and then spread out to become different voices. Although it's completely unlike last spring's electronic/ live performance of Mason Bates' "The B-Sides,"  like the Bates piece "Carlo" shows that crossing genres and erasing the lines around what defines a live performance can yield some really interesting music.

Part of the reason I've maintained a reluctance to explore Haydn's music is that there is simply too much of it and his sound is so easily identified. If it sounds like a good Mozart piece you've never heard or an early Beethoven Symphony you can't quite nail down, then it's a pretty safe bet it's Haydn- whose style is the epitome of "Classical" form. But who has time to become intimately acquainted with a composer who wrote more than a hundred symphonies (104 to be precise), 76 quartets, 68 trios,  54 sonatas, 31 concertos, 24 operas and 16 masses alongside what must be at least a hundred other works? Please, I haven't even gotten through all of Wagner's operas and there are only thirteen of those. It's ridiculous, and unlike the inimatable Bach, whose prodigious output could take a lifetime to listen to and digest, Haydn's strengths were absorbed and improved upon by both Mozart and Beethoven. It's almost like listening to Chuck Berry instead of the Beatles, the Beach Boys or the Rolling Stones. A little Chuck Berry every now and again is a good thing, but his successors took what he built and greatly improved on it.

Yet the early masters can be great fun to play straight. They allow musicians to stretch their muscles on the basics. "Johnny B. Goode" has been covered by Elton John, NOFX, Judas Priest, Phish and Leif Garrett as well Hendrix, Elvis and the Beatles among too many others to list- because it's a classic of the form. So Haydn's "Surprise" symphony was given the Chuck Berry treatment it richly deserves and Roberston gave the orchestra a chance to flex their muscle. Under his vigourous control they punched out a performance that ended with a musical exclamation point I've seldom heard. The fact that the entire orchestra was absolutely beaming when they were done says more than any words I could use to decribe it. It was classical music 101 delivered with total committment and pleasure.

Which brings us to Bronfman and Brahms. Last spring, Bronfman was here to perform Berg's daunting Piano Sonata and it was one of the most fascinating, epic performances I've ever witnessed so I was eager to see him again, though another performance of the Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto held no excitement for me. But together, Bronfman, Robertson and the orchestra made this warhorse come to vivid life. During the first two movements, with their accompanying large, dramatic, distinctly German walls of sound, it seemed like Bronfman just wanted to bludgeon it, giving a heavy hand to almost every part, really emphasizing the Romantic elements in the score and I write that without complaint. A couple of analogies come to mind, both films, which feature Charlotte Rampling and Isabelle Huppert as the female leads, and I should probably leave it at that.

It was a pleasant surprise when Bronfman received hearty (and sincere) applause after those two movements because if there was ever a time to do away with the convention of silence between movements, this was that time. Roberston, smiling over his shoulder, said "It will give him time to catch his breath!" His off-the-cuff remark reflected the spontenaeity and vigor of the performance.

The Adante, featuring superb playing by cellist Peter Wyrick, was simply a gorgeous exchange of melodic ideas between the two instruments that slowly spread through the rest of the orchestra, which also had very strong outings from the winds and horns, with special props to flutist Tim Day. Bronfman demonstrated he can go as light on the keys as he can heavy, playing the movement with a surprising, though welcome, delicacy that still retained a sense of deliberate control throughout. The fourth movement started in flash and concluded in a robust flourish that again had the orchestra smiling and hearty ovations for Bronfman.