Unaccustomed as he appears to be to public speaking, the great pianist
Emanuel Ax was struggling tonight in Davies Hall to say something that
makes sense, and he didn't quite make it, but getting there was more
than half the fun.
Searching for words to describe the Szymanowski "Symphonie Concertante
for Piano and Orchestra" he was about to perform, Ax came upon the idea
that the timpani, "no timpano," has an important role in the piece.
Realizing that he was wrong (there are actually FIVE timpanists involved,
with twice the number of instruments), he corrected himself, but the
conductor, Peter Oundjian - normally a fine speaker - picked up on the
singular/plural bit and suggested, helpfully (and awkwardly) that it's
like having a "spaghetto."
To which Ax responded that with his diet, it has to be "Spaghetti-ohs"
and started pondering the plural, but Oundjian - to his credit - changed
the subject. I am not making this up, you know, a truly bizarre low
point in the history of the SF Symphony's fine "6.5" series, Friday
concerts starting at 6:30 and including, supposedly, substantial
introductions to the music.
MTT (http://www.sfcv.org/arts_revs/sfsym_11_14_06.php), James Conlon
(http://www.sfcv.org/arts_revs/sfsym_6_27_06.php), David Robertson
(http://www.sfcv.org/arts_revs/sfsym_11_15_05.php), others have made
these events entertaining and edukashional; Ax tried to improvise and
he fell flat (or worse). It's a good thing that once seated, he performed
superbly. Look for Jeff Dunn's review at www.sfcv.org.
At Oundjian's prompting, Ax tried to describe the relative difficulty
of the two pieces he was to perform, the Szymanowski and Richard Strauss'
"Burlesque for Piano and Orchestra." Here too there were some eyebrow-raisers.
Ax's admiration for Strauss' facility writing for the piano and the
regret that he didn't write more were understandable, but then there
were these half-baked thoughts:
Szymanowski, an ardent admirer of Arthur Rubinstein, wrote the "Symphonie
Concertante" for himself, and "that's why it's not so difficult." Light
laughter. Huh? A virtuoso piece if there was ever one. But the Strauss,
Ax said, "has a million notes" - which, in comparison with the Szymanowski,
seems like a walk in the park. Strauss wrote the piece for Hans von
Bulow, Ax said, but Bulow "found it too hard to practice it," so he ended
up conducting it instead, and "(Eugen) d'Albert was the pianist." SFS
program notes say Strauss conducted the premiere (in 1890), but confirm
d'Albert (only 26) as the soloist.
Incidentally, am I the only one who hears the main theme of "There Is
a Place for Us," from "West Side Story" in full towards the end of the
Strauss? It would be interesting to find the chronology of Bernstein
conducting the Strauss and writing the WSS score. Not that I am
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