Weirdest moments of the 2021-22 classical season
Classical concerts are like tattoos: the first time you go, it's because you want something meaningful, and the tenth time you go, it's because you want a tattoo. I love attending these concerts, even though I rarely listen to classical music outside of them. In much the same way, I hate attending most rock shows, even though that's what I do listen to. The failure state of a rock show is sass, while the failure state of a classical show is torment, which is also sometimes its success state. Either way, I would rather be tormented.
The season isn't over – the SF Symphony in particular never really sleeps, and I have one more concert planned at the end of June before things even get into the summer sillies – but I feel driven to chronicle my favorite moments of creeping strangeness/musical apotheosis of 2021-22, a span of time in which I went to 12 of these fucking things. Voyage into oblivion with me.
- Joshua Bell shows us camp in a handful of dust. I resent how thrilled I was with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields' performance of Samuel Barber's violin concerto, with Bell as soloist/conductor. He was maybe the most alarming performer I've ever seen on stage, hammy, vain, and given to throwing shapes like a Drag Race contestant doing an especially gimmicky lip synch. Unfortunately, he can also play the violin like beaten lightning stretched over a blood sky, and his status as undeniable camp makes him perfect for Barber. (Bell is straight, but straight camp is real, and in fact specific to this man.) Since this performance, I have searched fruitlessly for a recording of the Barber concerto that sounds 1/8 as dynamic, disastrous, and insane as what Bell and the Academy gave us that night. Jesus Christ, what a time.
- The elderly Mozart lover I overheard sterilizing a nearby man who dared to patronizingly agree that her favorite Mozart piano concerto, the 9th, was "a good one." "No," she told him, in what I'm fairly sure would be Mozart's own accent, if he had come to Berkeley as a young man to teach music theory and then outlived himself by four decades, "it is a great one." Her tone was crushing, and magnificent. I remember nothing else about this impeccably pedigreed concert, which is almost certainly my bad.
- Herbert Blomstedt politely dares God to take him from Davies Concert Hall. I wrote a whole essay about this concert, and will try not to repeat myself, but basically Blomstedt – the winner, and presumably last surviving contestant, of the 1955 Salzburg Conducting Competition – delivered a performance of Beethoven's 5th at the height of the (first) Omicron wave whose intellectual generosity and musical intelligence I am still unpacking. The man was simply playing chess while others play checkers. I assimilated about 20% of everything that was happening, and would have picked up less if it hadn't been a symphony so famous that even I can hum all four movements. The stakes and the beauty of the event were unforgettable, and deeply interdependent. If the Bell show was torment at its best, this was a defense of joy.
- The man who misgendered me in the first-floor men's room at Zellerbach Hall, shortly before a perfectly nice Mozart matinee. I was previously fortunate enough never to have had a weird encounter in a men's room, and this guy said something faux-nice about how I might be more comfortable in the ladies' room, which "smelled better," in a way that meant "get out" and made me permanently edgy about pissing at classical concerts. Thanks!
- Mahler's 5th symphony. No cute title here. No doubt something else happened that evening, but I don't remember. Intellectually, I know that the other half of the bill that evening was my favorite Mozart symphony, the 38th, but it was a lot like the bit in Death Note when Light taunts Naomi by revealing his identity immediately after using his magic notebook to order her murder: something previously important was now beside the point. Mahler's 5th is a sophisticatedly kinky piece, but the SF Symphony, with guest conductor Gustavo Dudamel, topped him ably from the bottom. There were five percussionists up there. There was a harp. The whole thing starts with a trumpet solo that goes on for a couple of minutes. It was a military funeral in an instrument factory, but like in a Toy Story scenario where the instruments are also alive. Unstoppable.
- The time my Lyft driver delivered a learned discourse on the acoustics at Davies Symphony Hall, immediately after an overstuffed, humid performance of Beethoven's 9th in which the joy was very much an informed rather than felt quality. It was an informative and very funny conversation, although I still think that the acoustics are fine for 90% of people, including me, especially if you avoid the second balcony.
- The Beethoven ballet with the animations. An inexplicable evening. I will remember this until I die.