Beethoven 9 Picnic at Frost

July 14 2019

After seeing the first SFS concert at Frost in several years a few days ago, we took the whole family and the kids to see them again, this time as a picnic. The music is of course still important, headlined by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and started with Ravel’s Sheherazade song cycle (and again with Gemma New conducting). This experience wasn’t as great as the Tchaikovsky with Gil Shaham, but it was still good to be outdoors and have our kids discover Beethoven’s best in a great setting.

Since we were sitting in the lawn section and had the kids with us, I focused less on the actual playing this time. Instead, I’ll write about my thoughts on the lawn experience.

Setting up our picnic area!

We got there early and got a great lawn spot, at the front of the section and right in the middle. Unfortunately, the reason it wasn’t already taken is there was no shade in the center, and it was a very hot day. Still, we had a pretty good view of the orchestra and could see most of it plus the conductor.

Audio was the same as last time - every individual section was very loud, but the balance was uneven.

The late arrivers this time seemed even worse (probably because we could see every single person trying to make their way into the ticketed section). The opening Sherazade was about 15 minutes long, and people kept arriving for their seats throughout the entire piece. Even for an outdoor concert, I think it would be good to put some decorum in place; the concert starts on time, people that aren’t there should wait to be seated.

The second half brought the Beethoven. Musically, it was a nice performance, up to the standards of any professional recording. Gemma New again was very energetic in her conducting, and again, the orchestra didn’t really give any meaningful response. At least with the Beethoven 9, New’s arm waving and gesticulations didn’t seem out of place with the music.

The finale to the Beethoven 9 with the soloists

Overall, I concluded that the lawn experience was not that good, particularly once accounting for price/value. For our entire family, we paid $120 ($30 for each adult and half price for each kid) total. That’s pretty steep when compared with a similar outdoor venue that I’m familiar with, Ravinia in the Chicago area, where lawn seats are just $15.

I think the expectations at Ravinia are clearer. The pavilion seating there has cover, so you won’t get stuck in the sun. The audio is also much better in the pavilion. There are clear entrances and ushers, so people cannot just come and go to the seating area even if they are late.

The expecations are also clearer for the lawn experience. You don’t get as good of a view of the orchestra compared to Frost. But it’s also less formal, and that could be much better for kids. They allow more picnic items, such as wine and tables, whereas Frost is more financially motivated to get you to buy their food and drinks.

I wonder what the SFS will conclude from this little experiment with the newly renovated Frost. In total, they did 3 concerts (the Tchaikovsky, and another of this Beethoven 9 program the night before). For this Sunday afternoon concert, the attendance was very weak. I would estimate that 80% of the ticketed seats were filled, but the lawn was very sparse, maybe only 30-40% filled. Part of this is it was a hot day. But most days in the summer in Palo Alto will be hot and sunny. Maybe this just isn’t a good place for the SFS to spend their time.

Selfishly, I hope they do more concerts at Frost because it’s just closer for me and I generally like to picnic during outdoor concerts. But even I may have to reconsider, given the costs and the relatively subpar experience for lawn-goers.

Topics: MusicMusic:ConcertsMusic:San Francisco Symphony

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