The San Francisco Symphony’s opening night performance at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center was beautiful and exciting. Each player in the symphony is fantastic individually, and together under the baton of the rockstar of the classical world, Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra elucidated every ounce emotion in the evening’s music program. Weill Hall, the acoustic gem and main hall of the GMC, plays gorgeously to this. The premier acoustic space seems to widen the ear canal, allowing for more sound to be heard at once than ever thought possible. The pieces on this night showcased this clarity.
Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (Op.28) begins with a sneaky little theme, proceeding to take the listener through all sorts of jollity but always with the sense of danger right around the corner. After all, a little mischief never hurt anyone, just don’t get caught. The clarinetist in this piece has a challenge, playing extremely high notes, the highest the instrument can make. I ran into a much loved SSU music professor during intermission, and he suggested this piece was specifically chosen for tonight to showcase the acoustics of the hall. I couldn’t agree more. The fast runs in the higher registers translated not into harsh overtones, but velvety notes that were easily followable in the clarity of the space. When the merry prankster does get caught (and executed), the low bass and drum notes were ferocious, vibrating my loose pant legs (or was that just my legs trembling from the tremendous magnitude of unamplified sound?)
The only sound that hasn’t made me gush so far in this hall is the low mid frequency. It can sound a bit muddled, especially with piano. On opening night with superstar Lang Lang at piano, his dexterous Mozart performance was lost a bit in this register, and parts of the SF Symphony performance were not as sonically brilliant in this area during faster sections. It sounds as though this frequency takes longer to develop than others in the hall. But really, this is splitting hairs. It’s not a problem so much as an observation.
Yefim Bronfman’s playing on Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto (Emperor) was superb. It was not flashy or self-indulgent but more bold and heroic like the piece itself. Though it did not have the passion one would imagine of Beethoven himself pounding the ivory keys, demanding more from his instrument than ever thought possible, it was not lacking for emotion, either. Whether it was just my ears or the players adjusting to the space, during the first five minutes it felt like the piano was just a hair too soft. But soon after, everything settled in. From then on it was pure ecstasy, like listening to a fabulous recording on the best audio system, but it was real, and it was happening right in front of us. I was reminded of this when, during a quiet moment just before the piano flourish at the end of the final movement, a cell phone, ironically with the “piano” ringtone, went off somewhere in the building. This only made enhanced the experience for me with its reminder that it was taking place in reality.
Also performed this evening was “Pandora,” which the SF Symphony had just performed for the first time the night before. This 20-minute piece for strings written by SF Symphony assistant concertmaster and violinist Mark Volkert in 2010 again showcased the heavenly acoustics of the main hall with several solos and double basses playing extended low notes, vibrating the floor in some cases. It is a 21st century work, to be sure, but it is more accessible than some newer pieces. It’s a story piece with a concrete narrative following the Greek myth of Pandora, and can be followed without too much confusion and with beautiful imagery. Volkert was in the audience and came up from his seat to shake hands with MTT after the piece. Both looked quite pleased with the result.
The sad truth of a generation hooked on mp3s is they will rarely experience a full acoustic experience in music. Earbuds are a terrible listening device, reproducing, at best, about two-thirds of the human hearing spectrum. The best mp3 is 25 percent of the data of a full recording compressed into the middle of the frequency spectrum where our ears are tuned to listen more easily. Without getting too technical, let’s just say the sound is flat and lifeless. The main hall at Sonoma State’s Green Music Center is the anti-mp3. It is pure sonic expression, giving music a forum to be heard as it was intended by its creator and perhaps even enhancing it through the warmth of the acoustic environment. Though their home, Davies’ Symphony Hall in San Francisco, is stunning in its own right, I wouldn’t be surprised if members of the SF Symphony prefer playing in Weill Hall. This was the first of four SF Symphony performances at the Green Music Center for its 2012-2013 season, and hopefully next season features even more.