Oundjian and Biss, Beethoven and Brahms, and Marcher's peculiar peccadillos

Peter Oundjian, Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, began a three-night stand with the San Francisco Symphony tonight with a program featuring Christopher Rouse's The Infernal Machine, Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto (Emperor) and Brahms' 3rd Symphony.

This was the first performance by SFS of Rouse's piece, which is now part of a larger work called Phantasmata. It's a delightful bit of crazy business, GG described it as a "musical Rube Goldberg machine" and that's a pretty apt description. There are many interesting percussion elements and rhythms that chug along at a Looney Tunes clip. It went by in a flash and the only thing I can really say is it made me want to hear more- especially the entire work.

Now I'm going to take a detour. Beethoven's piano concertos are what really drew me into classical music. I vividly remember sitting in my living room one night in 1995 getting ready to listen to my weekly assignment for the Music 101 class I was taking at the time.  That week it was the 3rd Piano Concerto and I went and bought a recording by Emmanuel Ax with the Royal Philharmonic, conducted by Previn, of the 3rd and 4th. I put the CD in the stereo and proceeded to half-listen to it at a moderate volume until I heard the piano make its entrance in the 3rd's first movement.

"What the hell was that?" I thought to myself. I went over to the stereo, turned up the volume and started it over. When the piano came in again I went "whoa," smiled, and knew I was listening to something fundamentally different than what I expected. It felt like rock and roll. Hard rock and roll. It was like hearing Black Sabbath for the first time all over again. I cranked the stereo. Cranked it like I was back in 8th grade listening to Kiss Alive! when my mom wasn't home. It turned me into a Beethoven fanatic, a fate which was forever sealed once I started listening to the late quartets a couple of years later. To this day I still don't understand people who think there can possibly have been a greater composer.

However, the problem was I fed myself a steady diet of Beethoven recorded via modern methods and played at Metallica-level volumes. It was thrilling to say the least. Maybe you can see where I'm going with this.

This of course leads to a problem in the concert hall, because with the standard orchestra for Beethoven's works it's just not very loud. It should be, but it's not- there's only so much you can do with what is essentially a small orchestra compared to what Wagner and Strauss call for. And yet in my head the music has this enormous volume and that is how it should be heard. The reality is different in the hall. So in my opinion the conductor and the orchestra have to make up for the lack of volume by playing Beethoven with a fervor that borders on the ecstatic. Sometimes this happens, most of the time it doesn't. When it does, it's like doing really good drugs or having really fantastic sex. In other words, it's exhilarating beyond anything else. I've only experienced this a few times, most notably with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the LA Phil in an amazing performance of the 5th Symphony two years ago, the SFS with Nigel Kennedy performing the Violin Concerto, and the SFS led by MTT in revelatory 9th a few years ago. Usually I enter the hall with great hopes and am prepared to leave disappointed.

Tonight Jonathan Biss was the soloist for the Emperor and from the first chord I knew it was going to be disappointing. I told GG beforehand, who was unfamiliar with the piece, that the 5th was the classical equivalent to what Eddie Van Halen did on his band's eponymous debut album. In other words, it's extreme rock and roll, except it's dressed in classical clothes. What we heard tonight was stately, reserved, mannered and while it wasn't bad per se, it wasn't the balls-out performance the 5th requires to make it work live in the hall. It was a museum piece.

Biss, who has the most enormous hands I've ever seen on a human being (ladies take note), can play, but he also exhibits the excessive performing mannerisms so prevalent in musicians his age that always strike me as just so much showboating. He holds his left hand aloft as the right works the keys in a way that seems to be making some statement but what that statement means is beyond my comprehension.

Oundjian didn't help matters by leading the orchestra through a performance I heard as plodding and perfunctory. But what do I know? Biss and the orchestra received quite an ovation from the full house so don't listen to me- I obviously don't know what I'm talking about.

After intermission came the Brahms. I have to admit to being mentally distracted during this part of the night. April really is the cruelest month and for me it has been a doozy. My mind wandered during this, but try as I might, I really couldn't find a way into what Oundjian and the orchestra were doing after the first movement, which was quite beautiful, if highly mannered.

For an encore, they performed one of Brahms' Hungarian Dances. I thought this odd, and it was the second thing Oundjian did that was unusual- the first being addressing the audience before the Brahms (and giving shout-outs to Eric Idle and an old lady), the second performing an encore. Is he campaigning to be the successor to MTT? I certainly hope not- I've made it clear I think Petrenko should get the job.

And there you have it. Weird. Not what you expect. But that's life- right?