Every concert is a conversation between the performers and the audience regarding a particular composer. This conversation isn’t quite fair, because the audience always has the last word. The audience’s response is the final verdict even if the performers have made a brilliant case for the composers in question.
On May 13 at The San Diego Symphony the audience listened to the case for Anton Webern and Bela Bartok. The response was lukewarm. This conversation might have been over before it started.
If there were a concert which the regular symphony patron was going to skip in May, this was it. The prior weekend was Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. The following involves a visit from conducting superstar, Charles Dutoit. The last weekend in May is Jahja Ling’s final concert as music director. In this town, four weekends in a row might be too big an ask.
Add to that the atonal reputation of Webern and Bartok and you have a concert which couldn’t generate a lot of buzz. This is to be expected. Not every concert can be a homerun. Robert Schumann was also on the program, but Robert doesn’t have the pull of other Romantic composers such as Brahms or Tchaikovsky. There was no big draw for this concert.
The music of Webern has a reputation that appeals to conceptual minds, but his youthful composition Im Sommerwind had a significant emotional content. This tone poem was straight out of the post-Wagnerian/Richard Strauss tradition. However, Webern’s music didn’t quite get there, and the audience picked up on that. The applause was polite but was more a response to the music itself and had little to do with the quality of the performance which was solid except for a few miscues.
Likewise, Bela Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 isn’t the most accessible piece of music. Among musicians Bartok is a god, but it takes an uber-savvy audience to respond to Bartok’s concepts. I’m going to be on this concept-versus-emotion kick for quite sometime to come.
Is it a true theory? I don’t know, but it’s working for me at the moment.
Kirill Gerstein crushed it as the soloist for Bartok’s concerto but, again, the music itself didn’t appeal to this audience. The same thing happened a few seasons ago with Bartok’s Violin Concerto.
I think the symphonies of Robert Schumann rank amongst the most under appreciated in the entire repertoire. I adore them and turn to them often, especially the Rheinisch Symphony which is on the list for next season. Schumann’s Symphony No. 1: Spring was the season-appropriate selection for the second half of the concert.
Schumann's Sympony #1 - Spring
I wasn’t familiar with guest conductor Matthias Pintscher. His style as a conductor was lovely to watch, but I must say the opening measures of the Schumann hung together by a thread. For a moment I thought the whole thing was going to unravel.
It felt as though the rhythms were being placed deliberately instead of organically and the effect was less than springish. Once we got to the main theme of the first movement it came together and Schumann’s rousing homage to the season took off like a rocket.
Schumann’s themes tend to stick in the ear, and I left the concert with several of them on mental repeat. Am I saying that I enjoy the banality of being able to retain a tune after a concert? Yes, yes, I am.
If you think that’s uncouth, simplistic, and shows a lack of artistic insight then I suggest you go to Amazon and find out if they’re selling virtual personalities yet. Look for one that doesn’t suck. Leaving a concert whistling a tune is one of the great joys in life, and that’s what I got from Schumann, Maestro Pintscher, and the San Diego Symphony.