Every piece of music on Saturday night was tied to the piano. The piano theme is part of the San Diego Symphony’s Upright and Grand initiative for the piano and I’m enjoying the music it is producing.
The first piece of piano related music was a John Adams orchestration of a bizarre piano piece by Franz Liszt entitled The Black Gondola. The music was sparse and subdued, two things we don’t associate with the flamboyant Liszt. Les Preludes this was not.
The beauty of the tutti string segments was legitimate and the horn solo was spectacular in its phrasing and tuning but the feeling of this music was muy triste. The music felt reluctant, almost as if it didn’t want to be performed.
The Black Gondola
A John Adams orchestration of a piano piece by Franz Liszt
I didn’t sit back after the performance and pat my belly and declare it a satisfying meal with compliments to the chef. Liszt's music had the feeling of being stuck or trapped.
The Shostakovich Symphony No. 1 which followed didn’t help that feeling of being stuck. If anyone had a right to feel trapped it was artists such as Shostakovich in Stalinist Russia.
This symphony exploded into the symphonic repertoire when Shostakovich, then a 19-year-old conservatory student, wrote it. When I hear it now I can’t help identifying the embryonic elements of Shostakovich’s future glory in symphonies such as his fifth, seventh, and tenth. The tie-in with the piano is that there was a piano part in the orchestra.
The performance was right up there with the best the orchestra has put out this season. Conductor Cristian Măcelaru was a beast on the podium and put a tremendous amount of energy into this performance.
Shostakovich's chain smoking adolescent vitality blasted the "stuck" right out of the hall.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with pianist Jeremy Denk was the second half of the concert. Denk is in the top tier of world pianists and his performance was engaging in that he allowed a sense of humor to sneak into the music of the first movement. It felt as though he wanted to do even more with the playfulness but decorum held him back.
Then it happened. Right at the top of the second movement a cell phone began to ring and ring and ring. I’ll admit it threw me for a loop. That feeling of being trapped came back.
The spectre of a slavish addiction to technology arose in my mind and I found myself thinking of ways to punish this concert hall criminal. How dare they interrupt this most delicate moment of music with what, in all likelihood, was a meaningless phone call. I felt stuck in a culture that enables this type of interruption.
Jeremy Denk didn’t miss a beat and the final movement was uplifting and exuberant, as it should be. After several minutes of applause he played a selection from Bach’s Goldberg Variations as an encore.
The senation of being stuck in a senseless culture of apps and smartphones was replaced by the emotions of being home. Does anything feel better than being home?
That Mr. Denk has an affinity for this piece was obvious and I found it to be an emotionally intense experience, something I didn’t expect from Mr. Bach.
Jeremy Denk performs the entire Bach Goldberg Variations on Tuesday, January 19th at 7:30 p.m. at Symphony Hall.