Score With Smart People: How I Spent My Birthday


A symphonic score is, essentially, a bunch of dots, lines, and symbols that are put on paper as a coded approximation of the music a composer hears in his head. There are a wide variety of approaches a conductor can take when interpreting the printed score.

Some conductors chose a scholarly approach, trying to play with sound and a style that most closely approximates that which musical historians believe the composer would have heard. David Blum’s recordings of the mid-period Haydn symphonies with the Esterhazy Orchestra are a good example of this school of interpretive thought.

Others take a very literal approach to the printed score, trying to replicate in sound exactly what appears on the page. I find this approach a little bizarre, since anyone who has ever written a song should probably understand that there is no way to make those dots and lines express exactly what you want them to. Arturo Toscanini’s recording of Haydn’s 88th Symphony is played very much in this style, and it has an undeniable rhythmic drive.

It is also possible to interpret almost any piece of music as a showcase for the awesome musical ability of a great orchestra. The great George Szell often seemed to conduct with an eye towards demonstrating the total control he had over the Cleveland Orchestra, and when listening to his interpretations of the Haydn symphonies I often find myself reacting more to the precision and technical brilliance than to the music itself.

Other conductors, like Leonard Bernstein and Wilhelm Furtwangler, like to put their individual stamp on an interpretation. Sometimes this approach leads to regrettable excess and self-indulgence, but when it works it can be amazingly powerful. Both Bernstein and Furtwangler have made warm, humorous, and deeply romantic recordings of the 88th that stand as masterful examples of individualistic interpretations.


In order to deeply understand a great composition, it can be helpful to listen to several interpretations. What often happens is that your ear picks out the small differences in each conductors approach, and that in turn helps the true essence of the composition to emerge when you start to realise which aspects of the piece remain constant on each of the recordings.

There are a handful of compositions that I love so much that I actually have several recordings of each in my collection. They range from light and enjoyable pieces like Schubert’s Trout Quintet and Chopin’s Revolutions Etude to such complex masterworks as Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It is a real treat for me when I find a version of one of these pieces that I don’t own in a friend’s collection. Even though I’ve listened to the composition dozens of times, it is actually thrilling to hear a fresh interpretation.


Probably the single composition that I have heard the most versions of is this Symphony, sometimes titled From the New World. I spent seven happy years living in the Czech Republic, and Dvorak was a Czech composer who wrote his 9th Symphony while he was living in America as Director of the National Conservatory of Music. The mixture of fondness for his new home combined with homesickness for the land Dvorak had left behind still speaks directly to the heart of listeners 112 years after the work premiered in New York City. It is a work that is ideally suited to personalized interpretation, as it is an unabashedly emotional and highly tuneful work.


I was really excited to discover that Itzhak Perlman would be conducting Dvorak’s 9th with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on my birthday while I was on vacation in the city by the Bay. In fact, the concert was on October 7th, which just happens to be my birthday.

In my opinion, Perlman is the greatest living violinist. He has absolutely no technical limitations on the instrument, and he is never afraid to play with real emotion. I’d give his recording of Paganini’s Caprices my highest recommendation to anyone who wants to hear some real violin pyrotechnics.

There has been a trend lately towards more and more straightforward interpretations of orchestral music, but I hoped that Perlman, by virtue of his unquestionable greatness as a musician, would be allowed a little leeway when it came to how he led the Orchestra through the evening’s program.


We were only able to get cheap seats for the concert, despite the fact that we bought our tickets online the minute that they went on sale to the general public. The San Francisco Symphony plays in a building that is almost the size of a hockey arena, and we ended up in the equivalent of the nosebleed seats. The building is such a well-designed acoustic instrument, however, that we were clearly able to hear every instrument and ever note.


The first piece on the program was a concerto, which is a piece for orchestra and solo instrument. I had hoped that Perlman was going to give an anachronistically romantic interpretation of the solo part, but he instead chose to go the respectful route, playing with only a few strings and harpsichord accompanying him and playing with his characteristic sweet tone, but without using too much vibrato and definitely sticking closely to the printed score.

It isn’t unusual for even the greatest musicians to approach Bach with a kind of quiet reverence. The legendary Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who often infuriated critics with his highly personal approach to his instrument’s repertoire, recorded Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier almost exactly as it was written, for example. Still, I was a little disappointed that Perlman had taken such a safe approach to the concerto.


Mozart was still in his teens when he wrote his Salzburg Symphonies. He scored the 29th for strings, two horns, and two oboes, which is exactly how Perlman conducted it. It’s one of my favourites among Mozart’s Symphonies in large part because it’s a genuinely funny piece of music. For example, in the third movement Mozart has the strings and then the winds play as if they were percussion instruments. In the final movement, he makes repeated use of a little figure where the violins play an ascending tremolo pattern, going up and shaking at the same time like little rockets being launched. It was precisely these aspects that Perlman subtly emphasised, bringing the whole orchestra down in volume and pausing ever so briefly before setting off the fireworks.

Overall, the first half of the program was gently satisfying, but not quite the earth-shattering experience that I’d been hoping for. During intermission, while guzzling inexpensive sparkling wine, I tried to convince myself that the subtle approach was perfectly valid. I reasoned that perhaps Perlman needed to prove that he wasn’t going to be a schmaltzy and overly sentimental conductor, since some close-minded critics had accused him of playing that way.


Let me put this as plainly as possible: Itzhak Perlman and the San Francisco Symphony played the living crap out of this great piece of music. They milked the slow and sad passages for all they were worth, and pulled out all the stops for the fast and furious bits. Damn near every instrument in the orchestra was given a turn in the spotlight. The flutes were silvery and bright, the trombones raspy and soulful. The long English horn solo in the Largo movement literally moved me to tears. I was crying like Chris Benoit at WrestleMania XX. The whole orchestra was hell bent for leather during the finale. The violinists were actually whipping their heads around in time to the music like a bunch of well-dressed Dimebag Darells. I have seriously never seen an orchestra play with such unbridled energy. It was an insane interpretation of the music, and it worked like a charm. The extreme contrasts were handled without any feeling that the orchestra were shifting gears, in fact the whole thing seemed to simply unfold organically. The wild emotion of the musicians seemed to permeate the hall. Before the last note had died out the entire audience, possibly excepting the old and the infirm, rose to their feet roaring their approval. I do not mean that there was a polite golf-applause standing O, I mean that formally dressed people were pounding their hands together and screaming YEAH and WOOO!!!

It was a hell of a birthday.


Fernandez, Michael, Cameron, Mathan, and my wrestling column are among the many, many great things on the site this past week.