/* snooty artsy snobby music alert */
I bought season tickets to the San Francisco symphony this year, and Friday night was the first concert of my subscription series. Vasily Petrenko was the guest conductor.
First on the program was Arvo Pärt‘s Fratres, in the version for string orchestra and percussion. Pärt is an exponent of holy minimalism, a style of music with very simple materials with a “mystical focus.” Fratres is based on a simple scale (D harmonic minor, starting on A) and simple building blocks of short melodies, punctuated with periodic percussion. Two double basses hold a drone on E and A the whole time. The result is a beautiful, engrossing, meditative, and expressive piece of music. Petrenko and the SF Symphony’s performance was beautiful and very well thought out.
Next on the program was Bartok’s third piano concerto. French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was the soloist. Bartok wrote this concerto near the end of his life as a present for his pianist wife while they were living in New York during the Second World War. His health was failing as he wrote the piece; in fact, he was unable to finish it and only wrote the ending in a type of musical shorthand.
Before attending this concert, I had only listened to this concerto a handful of times. The dialog between piano and orchestra in the first movement reminded me of the piano concerti by Schumann and Grieg, and seemed a little clunky and derivative. The structure is consists of a fairly simple sonata form. I didn’t particularly care for this movement; the writing seemed fairly haphazard, and I don’t think it is Bartok’s finest work. Maybe that will change if I listen to it again. The orchestra was in fine form, and Bavouzet’s playing was very expressive and well articulated; however, it also seemed a little sloppy at times, and he did swallow some notes in certain places.
To me, the high point of this work is the second movement, the adagio religioso. Bartok, an avowed atheist, was certainly capable of expressing heartfelt spiritual sentiments. The movement starts with a very simple opening statement by the strings, reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s Americana with its open fourths and fifths. It builds up to a section of Bartok’s chirping night music and ends as it began. Bavouzet was in better form in this movement.
The final movement is much more extroverted and optimistic, and much more technically difficult. This movement displays the strong influence of Hungarian folk song present in much of his work; it also contains a challenging fugato section. All in all, it forms a fitting conclusion to this work.
The second half of the concert consisted of Ottoroni Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, two programmatic four-movement tone poems for a symphonic orchestra of Mahleresque proportions. In these works, Respighi attempted to describe archetypical Roman scenes; indeed, there is a very overtly spelled out program, and at times the scene is very well described by the music. However, certain sections of this music are so enormous and bombastic that it seems he isn’t really describing pine trees or fountains at all, but something far greater and more majestic.
I’m fairly familiar with this music, and on hearing it performed live by the SF Symphony, two of Respighi’s influences became very clear. He was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, one of classical music’s most renowned orchestrators. Respighi’s orchestration is beautiful and inspired, and his use of woodwind solos, off-stage brass, recorded bird song, and organ is remarkable. A second influence that struck me was that of French “musical impressionism,” particularly in the two slow movements of Pines of Rome. His chord progressions and harmonies are very reminiscent of Debussy and really help to set a beautiful atmosphere.
Again, the orchestra was in fine form for these works. Several soloists had an opportunity to shine (the first clarinet, in particular, stood out), and Petrenko was able to make the most of this orchestral barnburner.