101 in 1001 #88: See the SF Symphony live

A few days ago I got a message from the San Francisco Symphony about a deal they were running on a bunch of concerts: all remaining tickets $25 or $55, if purchased through today. I looked through the list and noticed a couple that interested me, including one that was tonight. Resphigi’s Fountains of Rome was on the program, which I thought I recalled having some good clarinet bits. It turned out I was thinking of the Pines of Rome rather than the Fountains, but I’m still glad I went. Since it was on short notice most people were busy, and I ended up going with my dad. We went out to dinner first, which made the whole thing more of a fun event — definitely needed since it was pouring rain this afternoon and evening. After calling around about a table in a few places in the area (note to self: don’t try to make dinner reservations on a Saturday night in a hopping area of San Francisco starting at 5:30 when you have to eat before a concert at 8), we ended up at a wine bar on Market called Cav.

Unlike going to the SF Symphony, going to a wine bar has never been on my to-do list in life. I like wine, and I’ve learned a bit about it since I moved here, but I’m not into it particularly. Wine people are sometimes snooty, and the food at a wine bar often isn’t the main attraction. Fortunately, this wine bar turned out to be great. It was definitely ‘hip’, but the people behind the bar were friendly and helpful, and the food was excellent. I had butternut squash ravioli with little turnip cubes and swiss chard, and it was really way beyond my expectations. I always like butternut squash, and I figured it would be some nice big ravioli with your standard thick puree inside. Instead, it was the kind of dish you end up dreaming about several years later when you realize you haven’t been back and now the place is closed and you can’t have anymore. The ravioli were small and delicate, the squash filling was pureed and very sweet but light, the turnips were flavorful and not bitter, and the sauce was a clear one, light and salty enough to counterbalance the sweetness of the squash.

I knew that that’s what I was going to have when I came, because it was the only vegetarian entree, so when I was picking a wine I did keep in mind what I’d be eating it with. I ended up picking a pinot blanc from Skylark Wine Company, which was really nice and just as described, fruity with a bit of weight (those are my words — they said something about tangerines and nuts). Funny enough, the guy told me that the wine would go well with the dish. So I guess I’m not as clueless as I sometimes think I am, or else I’m just lucky. We were both right; they went well together.

But to get to the actual point of this post, the concert was excellent. The highlight of the evening actually turned out not to be the Fountains, but rather the Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra by Bruch. The violinist, James Ehnes, was almost certainly the best violinist I’ve ever heard perform. After a while of listening to him I realized that he sounds exactly like I expect a violin should sound. He had an extremely pure and clear sound, and a great deal of precision. Everything was just so, but he was still very expressive as well. I also found it mildly hilarious that he is from Brandon, Manitoba. 1) Canadian! 2) Brandon?! (Brandon, it turns out, is near Winnipeg, actually a town of 50K+ people and the second-largest city in Manitoba, and not all that far from Fargo, in the realm of “places I’ve been”.)

Overall, while I enjoyed the concert a lot, I found the SF Symphony less mindblowing than I suppose I had expected. I think it’s because I’ve been terribly spoiled for hearing excellent orchestras, from NMSO to the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra, from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to the UC Berkeley University Symphony Orchestra. The SFS is definitely a cut above all of these, but it’s also costly and doesn’t provide me with good seating pretty much automatically. Yes, I said I was spoiled.

Still, I was highly impressed. It’s everything a top-notch symphony should be, plus a certain extra delicacy of touch and increased precision. I particularly noticed that the orchestra only once got to the volume where music, for me, disintegrates into noise. This tends to happen to me fairly often during loud pieces, but they definitely brought the intensity without bringing the noise.

The principal woodwinds (the only ones I’m really fit to judge) are definitely mindblowingly good. The clarinettist was highly fluid and navigated incredible intervals without the slightest squeak. The oboe and English horn tones were distinctively double-reed without being nasal in the least, and the bassoonist executed some amazing high notes. The flute solos were smooth and clear.

I also tremendously enjoyed watching Vladimir Ashenkazy conduct. I love his playing (many of the piano recordings I have are of him) and so it’s a treat to see what he can do in another realm. He has clear and descriptive movements, but doesn’t seem to have to exhort the orchestra as some conductors do; he has the kind of energy that often results in dancing conductors, but with a groundedness that keeps the music stable and him from actually dancing off into the air.

To top it off, the symphony hall is also quite beautiful. The place is pleasantly warm from pink tones without being too pink, and the organ behind the orchestra is amazing to look at. I can only imagine how it must sound! From the outer lobby, you get a view of City Hall.

I’m looking forward to going back to see them in May, this time for Brahms’ German Requiem, which I absolutely adore. If that doesn’t blow my mind, I don’t know what will.

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