Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Blomstedtiana, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Joshua Bell.

As you well know, Fosco is a lover of the contemporary classical music. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't enjoy a bit of the more traditional repertoire every so often--especially if that means Mahler, Wagner, or, perhaps, a performance led by one of his favorite conductors.

And one of those conductors would be Herbert Blomstedt (or, judging from the photo to the left, you can just call him George F. Will). I think Herbert Blomstedt is brilliant. I got to know him through his recordings with the San Francisco Symphony in the late 80s and early 90s. I consider three of these discs to be the absolute definitive recording of the work:

Not to mention his excellent Nielsen cycle and his excellent Hindemith. With my love affair with Blomstedt's recordings, imagine how excited I was in 1997 (or was it 98?) to see him conduct the SF Symphony in a Brahms/Berwald program. I loved that concert... and so, of course, I couldn't resist getting tickets to the SFS last weekend to see Blomstedt conduct Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Nielsen Symphony No. 5.

A "Beethoven Violin Concerto" + "Scandinavian Symphony" program actually suggests to me a digression, as I saw essentially the same program last October in Minneapolis. I was in town for a conference and was strolling down the Nicollet Mall (brrr... that city is COLD) when I passed Orchestra Hall and noticed the Minnesota Orchestra program for that evening featured the Beethoven Violin Concerto (with Christian Tetzlaff) and Sibelius Symphony No. 4.

As I had recently read Alex Ross on the Minnesota Orchestra and their hot new conductor, Osmo Vanska, and
as my greatest dream in the world is to someday become Mrs. Alex Ross, and
as Vanska is considered to be an expert on Sibelius, and
as I lurve Sibelius 4...
I had to get a ticket.

Strangely enough, the revelation of the evening was the Beethoven: Tetzlaff was exceptional and, though I had never paid much attention to the piece before, I came away with a strong affection for it. I was a bit disappointed with the Sibelius: Vanska's tempi were too slow and the piece lacked focus. It felt draggy and dull. And Minneapolis's Orchestra Hall is a TERRIBLE space. Do not buy a balcony/tier seat there under any circumstances.

So it strikes me as a bit of an odd coincidence that again this October I saw essentially the same program (but, luckily, someplace warmer and sunnier... and with a better concert hall).

Let's talk about that concert hall: Davies Symphony Hall. I think there are good reasons to like Davies. The first is that it cuts a graceful profile from street level: (Note the chunk of Henry Moore sculpture in the lower lefthand corner.)

The second best reason to like Davies is that, even if (like Fosco) you are a Second Tier ticket holder (yikes! poor people!), the Second Tier hallway actually contains the best features of the building: the two open-air semi-circular balconies. The views of the city (and City Hall) are spectacular: And luckily, Sunday was the perfect day weather-wise to spend some time on the balconies, enjoying the air.

[N.B.: guess who got a camera phone last week...]

As I already mentioned, I was in the Second Tier. And not just any part of the Second Tier, but the... last row.

Here was my view of the stage:

It might look far away, but it wasn't really. For one thing, Fosco is farsighted. For another, it's music for chrissakes. And, for another, Fosco has a neat pair of opera glasses.

Oh yeah, do you want to hear about the concert now?

The soloist for the Beethoven was Joshua Bell who is, as you can see in the photo at right, super hunky. In the past, Fosco has been suspicious of Josh Bell's musical credentials for several reasons: 1) He is super-hunky (which makes one wonder if he is the product of label marketing to middle-aged women, a la Josh Groban) and 2) he occasionally releases CDs with names like "Romance of the Violin." On the other hand, he did record Corigliano's music for The Red Violin and an interesting recording of the Maw Violin Concerto. So I'd been conflicted...

It turns out that Joshua Bell is really good. His tone is lovely, although perhaps a little too sweet. As a special treat, Bell composed his own cadenzas for the piece and they were quite interesting. His cadenzas were extremely allusive, quoting Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 (and probably some other works that Fosco didn't recognize). This was an excellent performance.

And the Nielsen? To tell the truth, Fosco has had a great deal of trouble liking this symphony. As much as he likes Blomstedt's recordings, this is one symphony on disc that leaves him cold. The live performance changed this response only a little. The orchestra was in full force and sounding great, but the symphony still didn't compel me. I am torn between blaming this on the work itself or on Blomstedt. The one exception: the last few minutes were arresting. At the final moment, Blomstedt brought the orchestra to the point (because it's sure not a resolution that is achieved) and it was energizing. I would have loved for this moment to be able to go on for a long time.

Some general thoughts on the orchestra itself. The strings are excellent, the brass is powerful and authoritative, but something is not quite right with the winds. Throughout both works, the winds really stood out from the sound of the rest of the orchestra--there was almost no integration. I found this really distracting and bit puzzling, as the wind performers of the SFS may be the most distinguised group in the orchestra (at least judging them as soloists on recordings). I don't recall this problem the last time I saw the SFS (which was five years ago), so I don't know what to make of it.

On the way out, Fosco couldn't help but notice MTT's assigned parking space was occupied. Was he really there on a Sunday afternoon when he wasn't conducting? And in case you were wondering, it was some kind of Chrysler (though not a current model). If I were MTT, know what my ride would be? A rickshaw pulled by a shirtless Jeremy Bloom.


Anonymous said...

I respect your opinion, but you are sadly mistaken about Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. I attend about 10 peformances a season there, as I live in Minneapolis. I would rank as one of the top 10 best concert halls in the world.

It opened in 1974, and probably doesn't have all the bells and whistles that the halls that are being built now do, but the acoustics are extremely impressive. It's a simple building, but warm and inviting.

I don't sit in the tiers, so perhaps you caught a bad spot in the hall, but I have sat in many locations all on the main floor and they are all good. Nevertheless, I find it comical that you would prefer Davies Symphony Hall (which has been gutted and reconfigured several times now to improve the acoustics) over Orchestra Hall, which has always ranked very high on everybody's list since the day it opened.

To each their own I suppose.

FOSCO said...

Ah, local pride! Remember when it was possible to have it without irony? I don't either.

Alas, as Fosco doesn't sell real estate for a living, he cannot afford the main floor and usually ends up in the tiers.

Allow Fosco to clarify his criticism: the problem with the tiers is that, when you sit in your (moveable) chair in its appropriate position (as the chairs are arranged in the tiers), the unnecessarily thick lip of the tier blocks your view of over half the stage. To deal with this, you and everyone in your box (the tiers are divided) move their chair forward and sideways so that it rests against the lip. Then, in order to see the stage, you rest your arm on the lip and lean your body against it. This is not entirely comfortable, but it's pragmatic (and Minnesotans are indeed pragmatic...)

However, Fosco wonders if maybe the designer should have foreseen this problem in advance. And if he or she did know that this would happen but was willing to allow it in the "cheap seats"... Well, shame on him or her.

Also, as my grandmother used to say: one person's warm and inviting is another person's garish and mazelike.

Anonymous said...

Indeed! However,

FOSCO said...

Perhaps. But, as you clearly admit,