Musical Firsts - A Three Way and a Symphony

Believe or not, I'm not a cultured man. Never attended a performance at a symphony, opera, or ballet, but I’ve been there with Elton, Tina, Willie, John Lee, Etta and The Boss.

March and April were a mélange of low brow to highbrow music. Some are qualifiers for the 65 New Things list, some maybe not.

In the “some maybe not” category, we begin with a civilized dinner and drinks at Central Market in Petaluma with friends Catherine and Rick. Across the street is the Mystic Theater and that night’s show was a trio of solo artists –Joe Ely, Ruthie Foster, and Paul Thorn. I expected a set of music with all three playing together, but instead we were treated to something rather unique, to me anyway.

The trio walked on stage with guitars in hand to stools arranged across the front of the stage. Paul Thorn introduced the three and then played a song of his own while the other two sat and listened. Ruthie was up next with a wry comment or two on Paul’s song and then launched into her own whilst Joe and Paul sat and listened. Then, it was Joe’s turn for a quip and a solo.

This happened for 6 or 7 rotations and was quite entertaining. Songs were poignant – like Thorn’s “I Don’t Want to Know” – others rousing and funny. Their encore was another set of solos ending with a combined effort for one song.

One of the “first time” qualifiers was a visit to San Francisco’s Davies Hall – venue of the SF Symphony. On this night, however, the London Symphony was in the house and San Francisco’s Michael Tilson Thomas at the conductor’s podium.

I’ve not been to a symphony before and expected what most neophytes might – a little Beethoven and Bach with a dash of Revel. What we heard were three distinctly different experiences that I have to rate as “What was that?”, “Not bad”, and “This is what I came for.”

Orchestra members tuning instruments before the conductor enters is a scene familiar to most. However, the first piece, Hidden Variables by the contemporary British composer Colin Matthews, seemed to be the second movement of that familiar scene. To my ear, the music was discordant, jerky and not pleasant to listen to. A reviewer somewhat agreed; “Like many contemporary composers, Matthews writes jittery, restless music that shifts moods and effects abruptly.”

The second piece featured piano soloist Juja Wang. The opposing interplay of orchestral restraint against the bounciness of Ms. Wang showcased her talent and renown as a great technical pianist. Their play of a Gershwin Concerto was a good blend of tradition and contemporary and pleasing to my ear.

After intermission, we heard what I had anticipated – a traditional symphonic experience complete with booming kettledrums, clashing cymbals, and sweet stringed instruments. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was quite lovely and made the 65 New Things evening a success.

I can’t say that I will become a season ticket holder but I’m willing to give the symphony another go. I just need to research the program beforehand to see if it suits my newly developed cultured taste.

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