Koopman's debut is a quirky delight

Ton Koopman: Photo from Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart

After a very long day at work I headed out to meet Chad Newsome and the Reverend Brown at a coffee shop for conversation and catching up. The Reverend, once the fulcrum of my social circle, is a rare sight these days for those of us who live on this side of the Bay so it was a treat to see him, albeit sadly it was  brief. Chad and I took leave of him and headed over to Tulan since Chad had a hankering for Imperial Rolls. I ordered my usual, #74, and tonight it wasn't very good. It tasted tired and looked like glop, but then I felt the same way about myself. I don't know if I'd go back after this visit, even though dinner for two for less than $13 is an obvious attraction. Or perhaps it should be viewed as a warning?

After dinner we headed over to Davies. I expected Chad would say yes to this program as he's fan of Baroque music, but he knows I'm not  and he said he was surprised this particular concert was of interest to me. The music really wasn't, to tell the truth, but I find this program's conductor, Ton Koopman, fascinating and these concerts are his debut with the San Francisco Symphony.

I first heard Koopman conducting Vivaldi's The Four Seasons some years ago while driving in my car and was immediately taken by his quirky tempos and what was emphasized in his textures. It was almost like hearing it for the first time. I bought the CD and played it endlessly during the summer of 1996. Back when KDFC was still a real classical station, or I'd be driving around LA listening to the radio while visiting (I don't own a car anymore) every once in awhile something quirky would catch my ear and I'd say to myself "I bet that's Koopman" and sure enough it usually was. He is one of the few contemporary conductors who bears a very distinct stamp on the music and his name alone made me want to see what he was going to do.

The program began with J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3. The Overture was played very briskly and one of the three horns was having a difficult night from the onset and didn't recover during the movement. It sounded a bit under rehearsed but I suspect the real cause is Koopman is probably a challenge for the musicians of the orchestra (more on this later). The second part, the famous "Air," was slowed down and stretched out to be almost unrecognizable, but it had a lushness to it I found very rewarding. It was exactly the sort of thing I was hoping Koopman would do. The finale sections were played briskly and cleanly by the string sections. If the piece didn't contain a harpsichord (which was well-played by Robin Sutherland) I would love it, but the truth is I just don't like the sound of the thing- it annoys me and now you know why I'm also not really a fan of Mozart's operas. Somehow, Sutherland kept if from annoying me tonight- thank you for that, Mr. Sutherland.

The next piece was Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 2 featuring soloist Mario Brunello who I thought was marvelous though someone I know called him "sloppy but soulful" during the intermission. I agree with "soulful" and would add expressive and clear of tone. I also think for a soloist, working with the quirky Koopman must be quite a challenge because one gets the sense it's really being made up on the fly even though Koopman is very deliberate with his manners, looks and gestures. At one point he even put his hand over his own mouth as if to muffle himself.

When it was over, the members of the orchestra seemed split into different camps of the delighted, the confused and the angry and frankly, though I tried to get a consensus on what they thought of all this there was none to be had.

After intermission was C.P.E. Bach's (J.S.'s son) Symphony in G major, a three movement work which has never been performed by the orchestra. Ever! Koopman made a strong case for it and again I was keenly tuned to what he was doing with tempos within the movements. I also found it very odd but pleasing to inexplicably and involuntarily associate sections of the rhythmic Presto (the final part) with the Scherzo of Beethoven's 9th.

The final work on the program was Schubert's 5th Symphony. Here Koopman rewound the Romantic work into a Classical one with force and speed. The outer movements were stripped of their Beethoven-like romanticism and injected with a lean classicism which made them sound more like Haydn. The inner andante was given a slower, more meditative pace and this Menuetto could only be danced by the sure-footed. Confusing? Slightly. Interesting? Absolutely.

When it was all over Koopman lauded many of the musicians and shook plenty of hands and from my 8th row orchestra seat I tried to read their faces. Again it was an intriguing, inconclusive mix. I've seen this orchestra enough to know their looks and body language after a great performance and one that wasn't. A violinist was holding back laughter- another looked embarrassed. There were whispers and there were wide, sincere smiles. There was pride and confusion and knowing side glances. If ever I had an opportunity to discuss the performance with the orchestra afterward, this would have been the night. Sadly, I had to return home and post this because tomorrow is another long day and tomorrow night is Eonnagata.

All in all it was delightful. Chad enjoyed it as well. There are performances this Friday and Saturday night at Davies and Thursday night in Cupertino. Go hear it for yourself.

And buy this CD!