Wow !!! Saturday night I heard the most fantastic music, with the most fabulous sound. My spine was tingling. And it was all there in front of me, from my 2nd row center-left seat at the Majestic Theater in San Antonio, Texas for The San Antonio Symphony.
Actually, this happens to me 15 or so times a year because I have a full season subscription, now in its 11th year. This is the one expenditure I am most proud of, to be both enjoying and supporting such a wonder! No "affluenza" guilt here! I think it's important to buy season subcriptions, otherwise you'll forget about it and not go often. Even if you miss a few, it's still a good deal (and my symphony allows you to exchange subscription tickets for other dates). Compared with what people like me spend on other things (such as oddball barely working tuners) it's incredibly cheap. I can't understand why all my music loving friends don't subscribe; they're fools if they don't. I wonder if some people have trouble justifying paying for just an experience instead of a piece of stuff they'll keep lugging around forever. But in my experience, it's all experience, even a piece of stuff is really just the set of experiences you have with it (serious audiophiles know that, and treasure every moment, starting with unwrapping the box). Another argument I hear is the whine that it's better to hear (or re-hear) a classic performance, which may be the best performance ever. But each different performance has it's unique glories, and once the quality of performance reaches a certain level (which it has here) you don't need more to have a great joy.
There's also something very special about congregating with your friends and soon-to-be acquaintances to hear a live performance with real living musicians. It's spiritual, like going to church. In fact, the San Antonio Symphony is my church. It's the one I attend the most, believe in the most, and proselytize for.
Now I happen to be very lucky in many ways, including living in a city with such a wonderful orchestra. I'm not kidding or just boasting with tribal pride when I say it is one of the world's best. Every guest performer, conductor, etc., says that, and they're right. I've heard some of the greatest, such as the Berlin Philharmonic, which I heard last year in Chicago, ok, I admit, that was the very best performance I've ever heard live, in the best music hall I've been in. But actually, my local band is nearly as good. I believe that global levels of musicianship have never been higher. So probably the professional orchestra close to you is about as good too. Did you know more people attend professional classical music performances than professional football? It's usually a lot cheaper too (though my single ticket to hear the Berlin Philharmonic in Chicago was way up there, but that was a very special treat, once in a lifetime kind of thing, though hopefully not for me).
I've even heard from an insider that many of the musicians are there mainly for one reason: to hear that incredible, truly incredible sound themselves, from right in the middle of it. Unfortunately, for many of them, the pay may not be all that great. Considering what we and our stingy-to-arts (but not sports) city government pay, we really do not deserve to have such a wonderful orchestra, but there it is anyway.
Last night's performance feature three fabulous works of music, revealed through the kind of glorious sound no reproduction can match. There was also a fourth (the first played) that I didn't much care for, but that's just part of the game. It helps to hear what you don't like to understand what you like. And eventually, you may like that also; our musical tastes are dynamic, and with music a little familiarity usually helps rather than hurting.
The performance began with Stravinsky's Symphony in C. Now I'm a fan of Stravinsky's most famous works such as Rite of Spring. But this piece just seemed way too austere. I often feel that way about Prokofiev. When I once made this criticism (wrt a work by Prokofiev) to a great music director, he didn't deny it was austere, but said to me "austerity is one of the essential facets of life we must explore in music". I think austerity is fine for solo instruments (such as wailing in a cave or huge cathedral) or small groups, but not for an orchestra. By it's nature, a Symphony Orchestra is over-the-top, larger-than-life, full of potential passion and power. If it's not reaching the heights of passion, it's a waste. My favorite composers are the ones who do that best, like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.
Funny that when I was a kid, I greatly preferred Bach and Mozart to Tchaikovsky.
But then followed the great Concerto for the Left Hand for Piano and Orchestra by Ravel. The pianist was the incredible (and amazingly small) Ryo Yanagitani, who played with incredible power with just one hand. That being the left had, it had command of most of the keyboard, but tended to focus on powerful lower mids and bass.
The second half of the concert featured the essential Gershwin pieces Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris, with Yanagitani playing the piano in Rhapsody. It was incredibly delightful to hear these pieces with the full power, spaciousness, thereness of a real symphony orchestra. Gershwin is pure Bad Boy (see 20B review below) in these works, challenging us to give up all our preconceived ideas about rhythm. He swings and swangs and the same time.
In addition, every time I hear these great Gershwin pieces, the motifs sound a bit different. Like vocal accents, no two players or orchestras play them exactly alike. So if you always hear a particular version the live will always sound slightly different, revealing different nuances in its composition.
I once heard a piano roll version which had been originally recorded by Gershwin himself. (Yes, that was with the San Antonio Symphony a few years back.) Then, it shocked me how different Gershwin's personal version was from the version in my mind (from some classic recording I can't remember the name of). Yanagitani's version was closer to Gershwin's than the old classic recording I remember. But it seems no two performances are exactly alike. Which is one more reason you have got to be THERE.