Old Sounds of My New Home

I used to live in New York City, but was away for grad school and life in general for 15 years. San Francisco was my home, and it was also the place where concert-going, especially to the San Francisco Symphony, became a major and inherent part of lving.

That’s begun again here, this past fall, and it helps make me feel back at home in my new/old home. There’s something about retracing old steps and adding new segments to old experiences that makes me feel at home (and I felt this way revisiting Venice last spring – a place I’ve never lived, but is now familiar and where I have routines and habits), back home. After watching the Giants beat the Cowboys in the playoffs, I went out to catch Paul Motian, Chris Potter and Jason Moran at The Village Vanguard, and seeing that familiar red sign glowing through the cold rain falling made me feel like I had never left the city.

Recently, I’ve been back to see the NY Phil, and it’s been an intriguing and slightly strange experience. I’m not going to give much of a review, but rather my impressions of the orchestra and how hearing them fits into the long accumulation of aesthetic experiences and ideas I’ve brought back to New York. Over a little more than a week, my wife and I went to two concerts, one with Ricardo Muti conducting the Schumann Piano Concerto and Bruckner Symphony No. 6, Radu Lupu as the soloist, and the other a performance of the Berio Sinfonia and Brahms 4th with Maazel.

The first concert was a real pleasure – the works on the program are favorites of mine to start with, and Bruckner is a composer who I am becoming more and more drawn too, and still have only a little experience with in the concert hall. Muti and Lupu kept the Schumann introspective, transparent and gently lyrical, it was absolutely lovely. The symphony was exciting and dramatic, and except for the last movement – which I think is a bit too episodic to really work – the performance was a pleasure. I was impressed by the clarity of textures in the Bruckner and the old world sound Muti got out of the orchestra, especially the winds. That sound, and the high-timbre, warbly vibrato horn, were the most intriguing part of the concert. Hearing them, the sound of the SF Symphony became much clearer to me in retrospect. The NY Phil sounded much more like the Berlin Stattskapelle than an American group, while San Francisco was cemented in my mind as one of the great contemporary orchestras, not just for their musicality and technical skill, but for their ability to play music like Mahler, Debussy, Ives and Stravinsky in an absolutely expressive and idiomatic way. That is certainly the legacy of MTT, just as this sound I heard in NY was surely the legacy of Masur.

So the following concert was a bit of a surprise. Sinfonia is a difficult, dazzling piece, and one of the most important ones to me personally. I had a cut-out Columbia Masterworks LP of the recording Berio himself led with the NY Phil – the commissioning group – and it was the piece that made me think of composing music in an entirely new, serious and truly contemporary way. Not to mention that it got me interested in this Mahler I had heard so much about. Considering the accomplished but old-fashioned style I had heard in the orchestra, and the fact that the programming by Maazel is as anodyne as can be, I was hoping for the best but not expecting much more than to be interested. But after a slightly stiff first movement, the performance was exciting, sharply played, full of color and very dynamic, very much sounding of the moment. I was impressed not only with this musical flexibility between the previous concert and this one, but also with the clear sense that Maazel knew this music intimately and was interested in it and excited by it. Who knew? Even more puzzling was that the Brahms performance, while perfectly acceptable, was also rather routine, without anything to say about this great, classic work.

I’m left with some optimism for the future and some puzzlement about the presence. If Maazel has nothing to say about the old warhorses he stuffs his programs with, why schedule these pieces? I have to believe it puts the truth to my line about how the administration there doesn’t want to wake up its subscribers. It’s left the Philharmonic pretty much irrelevant to the life of contemporary culture in New York. But then Maazel shows what’s possible with this group in contemporary music. And a new conductor  will be here soon, young enough to be a part of contemporary music. So perhaps there’s a lot to be confident about.