Saturday night's San Francisco Symphony concert was the first time I've seen the orchestra led by James Gaffigan. Now I feel like a total latecomer to a great party who arrives just as it's breaking up, for Gaffigan is soon headed for other locales after three years here as Associate Conductor. Gaffigan conducted this performance with control and precision. He's one of those rare conductors whom one can watch and know exactly where the music is headed, without theatrics or ambiguity. I, for one, really like that.
The first piece was Haydn's Symphony No. 52, oddly enough being played for the first time by the SFS. I guess when a composer has more than 100 symphonies to choose from it can take awhile to get to some of the lesser-known ones. I don't consider myself to be a tremendous Haydn enthusiast but I do love the clean, crisp precision of his music. Even pieces I'm unfamiliar with have an almost unmistakable quality about them which make them easily identifiable as being his.
This symphony treads the border between Baroque and Classical styles, especially in the second movement's adante, and thankfully, since I'm not a huge fan of Baroque music it falls more on the classical side. The fourth movement was played with an almost incredible speed and fluidity by the orchestra, yet everything emerged with impressive clarity.
For the second piece Leila Josefowicz came onstage looking, and there's simply no other way to put this, incredibly hot. Thankfully she had her hair pulled into a girlish ponytail, otherwise she would have looked more like a runway model than a musician and I would have been distracted throughout a knockout performance of Thomas Ades' brilliant but difficult Concentric Paths concerto. This three part work, with two fast, short movements framing a slow middle, allows the violinist almost no respite. The slow movement, entitled Paths was the center around which Rings and Rounds revolved. Riddled with a sense of unease and angst, with sudden percussive barks coming at unexpected moments, this music is simultaneously gorgeous and scary.
Josefowicz attacked this piece with intensity and verve. All the more impressive because on her current tour she is performing 10 different concertos by 9 composers ranging from Beethoven to Salonen. She played with fierce dedication. I couldn't help but wonder how she's committed so many works to memory. The SFist has an interesting interview with her where she remarks about her preference for memorizing scores for a performance. Consider me a fan.
After the intermission, Gaffigan led a crystal clear account of Mozart's Symphony No. 39, which at one point had me unintentionally smiling. I looked around the audience to see if I was the only one who was being completely carried away by this performance. I wasn't- I could see smiles throughout the hall. James Gaffigan- best wishes on your next endeavors, and please come back soon.