I love going to the symphony. There’s the trip to San Francisco, the thrill of Davies Hall and the surrounding Civic Center, the people watching, the pageantry of it all. But, in the end, it’s the soloists I go to hear. They’re like the main course and dessert pulled into one. In the past two months, I’ve had the good fortune of attending not one but two sublime performances. If I had to score them, which one would rank higher? Oh, not fair. Can’t say I could do that. Okay. Score cards out.
James Ehnes came first, in February, performing Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. He wore a tux, which I loved. Points for Ehnes. Some argue that the clothes don’t matter, it’s about the music, or comfort for the musician. But I’m sorry, it deflates me to watch a performer stroll on in what looks like pajamas (albeit black ones) or some casual-looking outfit. I dressed up for the show, couldn’t they do the same?
I’d never heard Scottish Fantasy played live before. I love Bruch, all five of his concertos (include the not-to-be-missed Serenade in A Minor). The opening movement of his Scottish Fantasy, which really does call to mind Scotland, or, weirdly, the musical Brigadoon,, is particularly seductive and cinematic. Ehnes’s performance was close to flawless, with a clear, sweet tone throughout that made me think of honey. A golden flow of sweetness, always suiting the orchestral mood, which sounded even more dreamy with the addition of a harp. Ehnes is such an elegant player, good-looking, neither static nor restless in that convulsive way that makes you wish the performer would consider a ballet class to give some of those twists and sways some grace, at least. He looked good, he sounded good, you were just swept along on this great, golden wave and you didn’t want the music to ever end. Big points on all the above.
The contender: Gil Shaham in his March performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. He also dressed up for occasion, in a dark suit and tie. Thank you, Gil. Two points. Now Gil, he moves around. It was a different kind of movement from the aforementioned awkwardness, however. Not swaying so much as taking a few steps from one spot of the stage to the next. One obvious disadvantage here was that at times he was partially obscured from my view by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the conductor’s podium. Since Gil moved around quite a bit, I was able to catch a better view a minute later. Right, then, one point taken away for hiding, one point given for returning. And one more point, because he is so unconscious about his movement, so wondrously caught up in the musical experience, he gives you the feeling that you’re there right alongside him, discovering something new in this warhorse concerto. I must say I fell in love with the Mendelssohn all over again. And I just love Gil’s open, expressive face, with features that play well to a big concert hall. He seemed to be in his element that night, both exhilarated and inspired. It was a contagious mood. High points for Gil.
Two fabulous soloists at the top of their game. One, pure elegance and virtuosity, allowing the audience to revel in the pleasure of hearing everything done right. The other, equally virtuosic (is that a word?) brimming with organic artistry, sharing with both orchestra and audience a sense of discovery, this new treasure, this Mendelssohn that sounds positively fresh and new.
Don’t make me choose. Please don’t make me choose.
© 2008 Terez Rose
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