New Beginnings Concert

Sunday’s concert (SF Symphony):

Joquin Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra
Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 in b-flat minor
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in d minor

It looks like a great programme, and I purchased tickets to it (on Groupon) not long after a pretty great experience with Shosta. My high hopes were not met, but the experience was, I think, an important one.

The couple sitting next to me frequent the symphony, and from their conversations I realized that they look for very different things when picking a performance to attend. I myself want to know the composers and pieces on the programme and I sort of just assume that the performers will do a decent job of reconstructing the pieces close to the original intent of the composer. When I do my ‘homework’ before a concert, I tend to Google the music, not the musicians.

Which gives me plenty to look up — it’s a whole world of things to learn, about musical period and historical context, and composers’ lives and their styles and motivations, musical composition styles and on and on. I try to pick a concert with a piece I know and enjoy, or something by a favorite composer, and then additional selections I’m not familiar with so that I am exposed to more.

Other people focus on the other things — the performers (“It’s St. Martin in the Fields, on tour!”) or the venue (“Let’s go watch whatever is at Carnegie Hall that night”) or the conductor (“Zollman’s interpretations of Boroque music are really refreshing”), and so on. These to me, are each whole other worlds of listening to classical music. One can spend infinite energy to keep abreast of them. I pick my recordings carefully, checking classical review archives, and have several different recordings of my favorite pieces. But when it comes to live performances, I feel that I have my hands full already without trying to juggle all these additional factors when picking a concert.

On the other hand, maybe I should make more of an effort sooner. The Rodrigo Concierto yesterday was performed by a young, and somewhat nervous, twelve-year-old Roberto Granados (he has a great name for performing Spanish guitar music). He was proficient enough on the classical guitar, IMHO, but … he almost put me to sleep (or maybe Rodrigo is to blame?). The Tchaikovsky definitely woke me up: it’s a dramatic, grand, sweeping piece. But while I have a recording on CD that gives me goosebumps every time, I had to work hard to get into this rendition by the pretty and perhaps prodigious 16-year old Rieko Tsuchida.

And Shosta? Ah, well, for that one there seems to be only Shostakovich himself to blame. The symphony number five was not at all what I expected from him. It was dramatic and loud, but borderline boring. [The orchestra was huge compared to anything else I’ve heard from the composer — piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, a tuba, a piano, two harps, … and a percussion section of at least 9 … and oh yes, don’t forget, the strings section. I’m pretty sure Shosta just gave them all the same notes to play. The result was something like a fun movie score, but without the movie to keep one engaged.]

The third movement helped redeem the piece a little bit. It has this nice subtle tension-building thing on violin that leads to an admittedly satisfying climax in the familiar sounding fourth movement. The final movement was fun — I mean, blaring horns and that timpani and bass drum and cymbals — but Shostakovitch has evoked a lot more in me with just three instruments in his chamber pieces. Wikipedia and a section in The Rest is Noise suggest that this piece was written as a sort of an appeasement to dissatisfied masses, and that’s what it sounds like to me — like he took a break and wrote something quick and fun but without any emotional investment.

I think after this experience I’m going to switch away from the symphony for a few concerts in favor of small ensembles and chamber music. It’s a struggle to find them, but worth the effort. I’m also going to try to get more sleep the night before; I think that will help me be able to enjoy the music more.



  1. Michael Andretti

    I did a brief search to see if anybody had reviewed the “New Beginnings” concert and found your blog. It was nice that you rendered your opinion but I am left with wondering if we attended the same concert?

    I’ve only been to four classical guitar concerts in my life and just generally guitar leaves me flat, so I won’t render an opinion as to Roberto Granados’ performance.

    The orchestra under the baton of Ronald Zollman was very good I am happy to say . Not as good as the last performances with Maestro Jekowsky but good enough to look forward to the future as his relationship with the orchestra matures.

    I was however, completely blown away, “goosebumps” and all by Rieko Tsuchida, as it seems were the others in attendance. The entire audience, not just pockets but the entire audience, perhaps with your exception, were on their feet for a three or four curtain call, standing ovation. My only disappointment, as was probably theirs, was that she didn’t play an encore.

    You said, “I myself want to know the composers and pieces on the programme and I sort of just assume that “the performers will do a decent job of reconstructing the pieces close to the original intent of the composer”. It seems everyone new to classical music does the same. Some 40 years ago when assembling my classical music collection and researching my next concert to attend, composer and piece were all important and a “decent job” was all I expected too. I had many albums of unknown orchestras and soloists playing popular works to familiarize myself with the music but all those albums are long gone. Now, performers are everything to me and venue and seat location are important considerations. I say seat location because I am also an avid audiophile and where I am in a hall can really undermine the sound.

    “Intent”, is a funny thing in classical music it can often be very different from what the music conveys. Music has intuitive dimensions of flow, rightness, feeling that often transcend the composers intent. A composer may sit down to write full of intention from his conscious mind, only to find his subconscious revealed, inspiration is like this.

    In music like most art if you approach it too sensately, analytically, you will miss the meaning, the beauty of it. A musical score played by a midi device, while perfectly accurate, leaves everyone wanting for real music. In this way we can see the score is but a skeleton, the performer fleshes it out. So perhaps those other concert goers are on to something, performer and to a lesser degree venue are of the utmost importance to many a seasoned classical buff.

    I have been to many concert halls, listened to many live performances of the most renowned musicians and countless recorded performances. I have been a jazz and classical musician and while I have been generally in awe of the new crop of classical musicians of the last 10 years, Rieko Tsuchida’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto in B flat minor, was one of the best I had ever heard. Such musicality, sensitivity, surprising power and seemingly effortless fluidity. I dare say Aman, though you may not have realized it, I believe we had the good fortune of listening to a burgeoning international star. I inquired if a recording was going to be available of it, sadly it is not.

    Cheers, Michael

    • Aman

      Michael, thanks for your comment.

      We both know that as important as the performance itself is the state of mind of the listener. My comments were an honest assessment of the evening, but I should have been careful to write them clearly as a description of how I felt about the evening, rather than as a critique of any of the performers. I’m certainly no music critic.

      What we casually refer to as ‘classical’ is a gigantic corpus of music, with many styles and sub-genres. Two classical music lovers can of course have entirely different tastes; I do not doubt that this, too, is a factor in our differing opinions.

      I appreciate also your comments about performers and composers’ “intentions”. I’ve been listening to classical music for far fewer years than you have. It’s been a great journey so far, and I look forward to seeing where it takes me. I’ll try to keep my mind as open as possible along the way.

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