Take your pick of a party at Civic Center on Wednesday night: either the Red Hot Chili Peppers headlining the Salesforce convention social event, or the SF Symphony Gala. From the balcony of Davies Symphony Hall which overhangs over Grove st, you could actually enjoy both simultaneously. We only were invited to the Gala, but could not shake the feeling that quite a few of the attendees at our event did not really care which party they went to. As long that there was an open bar, that is. A sizable chunk of the audience left the auditorium after the orchestra completed the first of two pieces before intermission. Maybe they were in the wrong place; or maybe the free flowing bubbly was more attractive than fidgeting in their seats for another ten minutes. A couple all gussied up in the back row behind the orchestra did not even wait that long, making a very conspicuous exit five minutes into the concert.
We can hardly blame them, as the concert opened with a rather dreadful suite from Romeo and Juliet from Hector Berlioz. MTT, back from his European tour which delayed the Gala from its usual post-Labor day slot, attempted to build some interest by highlighting some noteworthy elements of the score. His efforts were doomed when the first thing he pointed out was the contribution of the viola section. As the joke goes, some of the violists expressed surprised that the conductor knew they existed. He then went on to the Garden Scene, a fragrant ruffle of leaves where nothing happens and that's what we should pay attention to. Ok then. Despite MTT's valiant proselytizing, we found the piece flat and tedious, but mostly it's Berlioz's fault.
The Gala traditionally invites some celebrated performer to join in the festivities, and violin superstar Joshua Bell delivered. The Poème for Violin and Orchestra will not sweep anyone off their feet, but Bell's sensually phrased the long melodies and serenely meshed the two voices Chausson wrote for the soloist. Bell is the musical equivalent of this actor who could read the phone book and make it interesting.
The second half brought him back in Saint-Saëns's Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, a livelier affair with a more humorous vigor. Bell was able to display a more virtuosic angle, with the same aplomb, and always the rich quality of his phrasing.
Ravel's Bolero fits the Gala bill to a dot, as it reacquaints us with the musicians section by section, each playing the familiar melody before joining the orchestration. Ravel does orchestrate some funky pairings, our ears still ring from that of the celesta with the piccolo. The violins holds their instrument like the Gypsy Kings for most of the piece, and the snare drums deserve kudos for persistently repeating the same pattern all throughout without flubs. MTT built up the continuous crescendo, incrementing each return of the theme just enough to progress forward and never run out of steam at the end. Well done.
As a treat/encore, he served us a joyous Arlesienne of Bizet while carrying a voluminous flower bouquet (he nonchalantly dropped it when it got too much in the way), involving the audience into some hand clapping which drowned the music but provided the drunken audience with the calisthenics it obviously craved.