I visited Davies Hall in San Francisco today for a concert conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and featuring Midori, the acclaimed violinist.
I don't like the way Davies Hall is laid out, I thought to myself as I purchased some lukewarm Earl Grey and a cookie. It's beautiful to look at from the outside, to be sure, but once you go in, there's no way to go but up either steep stairs or in an elevator that only holds about 6 people. There are no restrooms on the main floor, a fact which baffles me, so it's down or up the stairs again. I adore the Side Terrace seats, which give you a great view of the musicians, their faces, even their scores. But those seats offer truly diminished legroom. It's like flying on British Airtours all over again.
Still, you can't argue with the acoustics. Well, you could if this were 1980. Davies Hall celebrates its 25th annniversary this year, and has had its share of controversy. The construction of Davies Hall gave the symphony, founded in 1911 as sort of a pick-up band, a building of its own. Before, the symphony shared space with the San Francisco Opera as well as the Ballet in a number of buildings (the Columbia Theatre, the Curran, the Tivoli Opera House, the War Memorial Opera House).
Davies Hall was an instant success -- "A place to see and be seen," "fabulous!" it was declared. However the critics raved, however, there was usually a little topspin, a small comment about how "noisy" the hall was. Those on stage noted that it was impossible to hear each other. As cellist Peter Shelton once noted, "Playing musically (was) an act of defiance."
After 12 years of musical confusion, the Davies Symphony Hall underwent an acoustic makeover, starting in 1991 and carried out over two summers. Phase One called for replacement of the 19 acrylic dishes suspended over the stage. They were transformed into 59 plexiglass panels which made up an acoustic canopy. Any panel could be adjusted electronically. In Phase Two, the hall was taken apart and reassembled. Many ideas were instituted to ensure the best sound creation. When all was done, the Hall was smaller by about 300 seats. The price tag for the remodel was about $10 million. Critics have noted that the payoff was immediate. The confusing echoes were gone, replaced with a warmth and intimacy.
While I was sitting in my Side Terrace seat for the concert today, a seat, by the way, which was changed at the last minute because they were filming, someone asked me if I thought the sound was different here on the side. "I don't know," I said honestly, "but I don't see how it could be better anywhere else."
Today we were to be treated to a rare appearance by Midori. I say "rare" probably because I've heard of her but never seen her. But, in truth, she seems to be all over the place: she does over 100 performances a year, and in addition, has many other projects she's working on, many charitable, all beneficial to the music world. There are so many stories about Midori, and yet she's only 34 years old. My favorite is the one where, at the age of 16, her E string broke on her violin as she was playing Bernstein, and was offered the violin of the concertmaster's. When that E string broke as well, she was given the violin of the associate concertmaster's. Both violins were much larger than hers, but she persevered. She is a legend among musicians, and the stories grow.
The place was packed, the first time I had seen it thus during a matinee. The two young Japanese sitting next to me (they spoke no English while seated next to me) were there for one reason: to see Midori play. They dutifully sat through the Copland to get to Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, the structure during which Midori would shine.
She did shine. She did other things, too, as her body never stayed still. I was worried that in my new seat I wouldn't be able to see the musicians' faces or watch Midori play. I needn't have worried. My new vantage point was satisfactory, especially for the musicians, as I was above them to their left side, and could even watch the pages of the scores being turned. Midori, however, twisted and turned so that I, rather than those in the orchestra seats, was able to watch her face during the entire performance.
From the very first note she closed her eyes. There was no score for her to follow. She was alone on stage. But she was busy, her upper torso twisting this way and that, her bow flying off the strings. MTT was standing right next to her, on her left, and maybe just a little too close. With her schizophrenic jerks, I felt she was going to whack him in the head with her bow. But thankfully that never happened. MTT has quite the reputation as an emotional conductor, but he seemed quite subdued during this performance. Perhaps he, too, was worried about being hit by Midori's flying bow and wanted to stay perfectly still.
During one part of the Prokofiev, during the 2nd movement, I believe, Midori began to seesaw on the strings, running her bow hard, back and forth, in a grating fashion. It really was the most unpleasant sound, like someone sawing through an expensive violin. In fact, I double-clutched, peering to see if something was wrong with her violin. MTT didn't seem disturbed; neither did she. I presumed it was part of the passage, and when she retreated back to melodic, beautiful upper-register notes, I sat back and enjoyed the rest of the concert.
Hers was a virtuoso performance. The young Japanese couple next to me talked animatedly immediately after the performance, obviously praising her virtuosity. They seemed very pleased. Midori enjoyed three callbacks in applause, but she did not represent the best of the concert.
Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man was short but miraculous, amazing in its brevity but quickly evocative of early Americana, and performed brilliantly by the brass and especially the clarinetist. Tilson Thomas especially seemed elated at the conclusion, going around to shake everyone's hand and acknowledge them publicly.
The Dvorak was also divine (Symphony No. 8 in G major). As the Playbill warned me, I wondered how such an inspiring piece could have so many minor notes. MTT threw himself into conducting, using his body, his arms, his eyes, his chin -- everything -- to indicate to musicians what he wanted. They answered with precision and strength.
Michael Tilson Thomas seems to be a conductor made for the "new" Davies Symphony Hall. He uses the Hall's virtues to its extremes, and is a pleasure to watch. He truly is a performer, even though his job is to command, even urge, the performance. MTT, the San Francisco Symphony, and even Davies Hall are a pleasure to watch and hear.
(Thanks to the Sept 2005 Playbill for the information on the remodel of Davies Hall as well as the selections in today's concert.)