Tortelier and the SFS get their groove on

Last night's concert by the San Francisco Symphony was an evening of odd contrasts that made sense to me when I bought my ticket but didn't completely work for me in reality. On the program was Bizet, whose music I generally adore, Poulenc's Organ Concerto, which I'd never heard but intrigued me because Poulenc is s one of those lesser performed composers whose music always seems to pleasantly surprise me whenever I encounter it, and two pieces by Vaughan Williams, one familiar, the other not so much to me, but he's a composer I'm currently trying to gain a better understanding of because of my burgeoning Britten fascination.

Yan Pascal Tortelier was the guest conductor and he's one of my favorites because he always strikes me as being completely and enthusiastically engaged with the music. He also makes these unique movements with his hands as if he's composing little pictures of the sounds - this note's a square, while this one has a round shape to it, etc. This was certainly the case with Bizet's L'Arelesienne music. At times Tortelier literally jumped in time to the music, leading a full-blooded account of the piece. Unfortunately the horns needed to have their blood-pressure lowered because they were blaring and too loud from their first entrance and almost spoiled some terrific contributions from elsewhere in the orchestra, especially Tim Day's excellent flute. By the end of the five pieces the percussion and horns threatened to spin totally out of control but somehow Tortelier managed to reign it all back in.

Paul Jacobs was the guest artist for the organ concerto. As I'm not a huge fan of sacred music and have rarely seen the inside of a church for any reason that doesn't have to do with art or architecture, classical music composed for the organ is not something with which I have much experience so I confess to a certain ignorance surrounding it. Jacobs' playing struck me as quite good, but the piece itself was something that I can't admit to liking at all. Yes, it contained those massive Bach-like power chords we all know, which sound pretty incredible coming from Davies' Ruffati organ, the largest in North America, but it also contained all the seeds for what would develop into a certain genre of rock I have little taste for, prog-rock. Now I know where Kansas got its inspiration for "Carry on My Wayward Son," definitely a contender for worst rock song ever. Parts of it also bopped along with these happy notes I associate more with a Hammond B3 and I was reminded of the Ray Charles song "At the Club" and one part even had me thinking of Dionne Warwick singing a little prayer for me. All of this seemed inappropriate to my ears and the piece left me feeling uncomfortable because the musical combination of the organ and the strings just didn't work for me at all and pairing the organ with the timpani sounds even worse. It's the aural equivalent of drinking red wine while eating a chili cheese dog- some things just shouldn't be attempted. However, the viola part at the end did remind me what appeals to me about Poulenc in the first place.

Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending gave Nadya Tichman an all-to-rare opportunity to take the limelight and she played it with delicate beauty and sweetness. I have always admired Tichman and thoroughly enjoyed being able to see this talented player take center stage. Her playing contained a grace and clarity of tone that perfectly suited the piece, and she and the orchestra succeeded in bringing out the transcendent quality of a work whose familiarity can often doom it a less careful and nuanced performance. Tichman received a warm ovation from the audience afterward.

Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 4 in F minor closed the concert (but not the evening). Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik took his chair for the first time of the night and for some reason that struck me as having an unsporting tone to it. I'm sure there was a valid reason why he wasn't onstage during Tichman's moment in the spotlight, but it left a taste that wasn't pleasant to ponder. Once again the horns were way too loud, effectively braying at their entrance. This piece has a schizophrenic, uneven quality to it that left me somewhat baffled as it progressed. The last movements were combined, but that didn't prevent my impression that it's as if the music itself can't figure out whether it's supposed to be a march or a scherzo. It's both triumphant and paranoid in alternating 10 second intervals. Finally it pulls itself back for a sly aside, but only to fall into some silly oompah music. Finally it builds to monster climax for a pretty hot finish, but I was left with no desire for a second round. That being said, there was exceptionally fine playing from principals William Bennett and Stephen Paulson.

After the concert, Davies hosted its second "After Hours" event. Taking place on the 2nd tier, the bars are open, the floor is lit in a soft pink neon glow and live musicians take the stage next to the balcony on the Grove Street side of the building. The band NTL, comprised of SFS musicians Bill Ritchen on bass, Ray Froelich on drums, Christina King on electric violin along with Neal Walter on guitar played metal tinged jazz-rock fusion that worked really well on a crazy quilt set list that included snippets of the Vaughan-Williams symphony, The Knight's Dance from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliette, Jeff Beck's "Freeway Jam," Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" & Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair" among others. People even danced on the floor set up in front of the band.

This being San Francisco, there was of course someone who felt the need to take to the floor by himself and perform his "interpretive dance" for us during the Simon & Garfunkel. Has anyone identified this particular gene and can anything be done to splice it with the one which gives a person rhythm? I have yet to see an interpretive dancer in San Francisco who possesses both.

My first impression of NTL was pretty good and I would go see them at another venue given the opportunity.

After Hours is a great idea and I think it should held regularly. I for one, love the idea of being able to have a drink at the hall rather than go somewhere else afterwards and have never understood why Davies and the War Memorial let Absinthe and Sugar take all easy that revenue out of their pocket, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. But the bar needs to serve better drinks (and move a lot faster) - Jack Daniels and Bud? Come on, this is San Francisco- we expect better than that. Well, at least I do.

The next one is scheduled for May 22nd and Mason Bates is going to dj after he performs downstairs with the SFS during the main event. I think this one is going to pretty hot and I look forward to it. Yuja Wang will also be appearing in concert that night.