The San Francisco Symphony has a tradition in recent years of ending their season with a series of really well-performed, well-programmed concerts and this year is no exception. Originally I was going to attend the Saturday performance, since I had tickets for Faust on Friday. But after seeing Faust on Tuesday courtesy of a last-minute invitation, I was somewhat dreading have to endure it again at the end of a long week. I decided to persuade the Femme Fatale to skip French opera and instead go across the street for German symphonic works. Now I really thought I would fail at convincing a French woman to actually do this but decided it was worth the effort and thankfully I somehow prevailed.
Since the program included the last Davies After Hours event of the year, there were a number of younger women in the house who seemed dressed more for the club than for a symphony hall and I have to admit that made strolling through the Davies lobby much more interesting and pleasurable than it usually is. There were a number of younger men as well, usually in packs, and I thought to myself the SFS was getting pretty good at marketing the After Hours events though I was surprised this concert wasn't sold out.
Really, with a program of Wagner, Berg and Beethoven, how can one go wrong?
The first piece was the Overture to Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander aka The Flying Dutchman. The performance lacked the thrilling energy of the last time I heard them perform it (when they did the entire opera as a semi-staged concert), but it was well-performed by the orchestra. It did leave me wanting more and brought back my destined-to-be-unfulfilled desire to see MTT conduct something across the street at the War Memorial. The brass were particularly effective.
Next up was Berg's Lulu Suite which was performed last year as part of the Schubert/Berg program. Erin Wall, who has had a number of great outings with the orchestra in the past few years, was the vocal soloist. Wall's voice pleases me for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, except to say that every time I hear her sing it sounds so effortless. Perhaps I'm influenced by her beauty, because I'm shallow that way. The suite gives the singer little to do in the grand scheme, but it is the highlight and Wall delivered Lulu's Song with a clear, elegant soprano which when combined with her elegant appearance created a disconnect in my mind between the nature of the song (a defiant justification by an amoral woman) and the woman singing it.
Having seen a superb version of the entire opera last month at the Met, hearing the suite was a less than satisfactory experience for me this time around, but that's my problem.
After the intermission came Beethoven's Violin Concerto- one of my very favorite pieces of music which inexplicably I'd never heard performed live. The soloist was James Ehnes and he was marvelous. This concerto isn't necessarily a technically challenging mountain like Berg's violin concerto, but it takes a tremendous amount of heart to play it well and Ehnes provided a soul-stirring account all the way through. The themes were beautifully rendered and the cadenzas soared. Interestingly, MTT conducted this with the score in front of him, something I'm not sure I've ever seen him do with a Beethoven work except for Fidelio and his account was devoid of the usual quirks in tempo that sometimes leave me unhappy with his interpretations of this composer's works.
Also interesting, to me at least, was the presence onstage of Alexander Barantschik, who usually takes a pass on sitting in his seat when there is a guest violin solist onstage. Barantschik seemed genuinely impressed with Ehnes' performance afterward. The horns were the only disappointment to me, failing to add warmth to the grandeur of the themes. The SFS's A Team were all present and as usual were excellent in support of Ehnes' memorable, beautiful performance.
As I mentioned before, the final After Hours event was held in the second tier lobby after the performance. The music was provided by Amy X Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet. On paper this sounded wonderful but the reality was different as they couldn't maintain the crowd's interest and this event lacked the buzz usually found. That did make it easier to find and speak with the Symphony's Louisa and her kind husband,which is always a pleasure. They'll do it again next year, which is a good thing, though I still think it would be great if they could find a way to do it after all of the Friday night performances so that the audience just knows if it's Friday it must be After Hours.
With the next two weeks bringing the phenomenal Yuja Wang and an all-Berlioz program featuring Sasha Cooke, it's entirely likely the SFS will end their season on a high note. Get your tickets.
There is a final performance of this program this Sunday at the Flint Center in Cupertino.
Photo of Erin Wall by Larry Lapidus
Photo of James Ehnes by Benjamin Ealovega