Vasily Petrenko Conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Barber, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich, with Sa Chen, Piano

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Vasily Petrenko. Photo Mark McNulty.

Vasily Petrenko. Photo Mark McNulty.

Davies Hall, San Francisco
April 24, 2015
The San Francisco Symphony
Vasily Petrenko, conductor
Sa Chen, piano

Barber – “The School for Scandal” Overture, Opus 5 (1931)
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18 (1901)
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Opus 112, The Year 1917 (1961)

Concerts this good have become our norm and good fortune in twenty-first century America—especially in San Francisco. We are used to charismatic conducting, to fine piano debuts, to engaged orchestral playing and the rediscovery of great neglected symphonies. What differs from time to time is the realization that a performer may not only be accomplished, or even inspiring, but one of a kind. I begin to think Vasily Petrenko is such an artist.

Just as there may never again be a violinist’s left hand like Heifetz’s, nor a rubber face like Bob Hope’s, I suspect future conducting students will marvel at Petrenko’s ability to embody the music he conducts—far more, indeed, than they will flock to Karajan’s mausoleum of eyes-closed videos. Karajan was a Sphinx, a guru, a seeker of it, but mostly within himself. His face was often opaque. Petrenko visibly resonates to the music he conducts—and has no need to evoke the score. He simply transmits it!

Petrenko exhibits the actor’s ability to reflect everything with his face—eyes not just open—but signaling everywhere, with syncopated eyebrows. He has a left hand you’d mistake for a spider spinning origami, while his body rides the bar lines like Fred Astaire tripping the light fantastic. And somewhere within his right arm is a beat of steel, almost military—which one simply cannot ignore. The net effect is one of powerful command, almost precisely because it is not vague or mesmeric. Yet it mesmerizes, because it is so flexible. Sometimes you think the man is a hologram.

Barber’s School for Scandal Overture is a whirring, bustling, aggression-lite curtain raiser. Inside it is hidden one of the all time great romantic melodies. It is perfectly designed for Vasily Petrenko’s DNA. He unwound it for the audience with the ease of a yoyo champion. There isn’t too much a conductor can do with the piece that is different, but a lovely ritard, in any case, preceded his warm statement of the central melody. (This tune surely inspired a similar one in Bernstein’s Candide Overture.)

Sa Chen. Photo Chen Si.

Sa Chen. Photo Chen Si.

The Rachmaninoff concerto, which followed, represented the local debut of Chinese pianist Sa Chen, pretty in a dazzle of gold, and as seriously accomplished as any pianist we have heard lately. But I had a somewhat mixed reaction. How much of the musical architecture was Petrenko’s would be hard to judge from here, but the first movement, in particular, kept speeding up and slowing down, getting louder and then softer in such predictable and unnecessary waves that it seemed one might become seasick. Beyond this, Chen exhibited a loud and metallic left hand. And the first two fingers of her right seemed a bit weaker and less audible than the rest during runs and passage work. (No other pianist I have heard exhibits the catlike fleetness of Yuja Wang, however, who seems to play the upper keys without effort or touch.)

Carping aside, the concerto had its share of vivid timpani swells and unexpected hushed piano moments. The boisterous applause was deserved, and Sa Chen’s encore, the Rachmaninoff Prelude in G, Opus 32, No. 5, was to dream for.

I must confess, though, I was waiting for the second half. I love the Shostakovich Twelfth Symphony more than I am supposed to! It has always received a horrible press from the critics, including recently in our local paper. But judging from the audience in Davies Hall, I’d say that is their loss. The excitement and screaming and genuine uplift I heard following the performance by Petrenko and the orchestra would be hard to overestimate. I think I know why.

Shostakovich’s music normally exhibits many virtues, but two important flaws. It is theatrical at heart and tends to depict conflict and catastrophe journalistically. And it evokes uneasy stillness better than any composer, but often by being static for too long itself. In other words, Shostakovich describes war by attacking you and evokes apprehension by boring you. Say what you will of the Twelfth Symphony, it keeps moving! And the historical moments have an exciting Blitzkrieg quality to them. Shostakovich, in addition, seems to have discovered how to make the cacophony sonorous.

The symphony is tightly organized, all the movements connected. And the general effect over its thirty seven minutes is of being derived from one set of materials, which reappear in various guises and hold it together—almost like late Sibelius. From the purposeful opening theme, which swings along like a riff on the Volga Boatman, through the energetic Rhenishesque dotted secondary idea, which swoops brightly upward, the symphony is filled with hummable nuggets that stay with one. One first movement motif is telegraphic, always pressing forward, urgent and scary. Another is shaped from seven slow brass chords, making for a sad contrasting refrain, almost Wagnerian.

This is also the only Shostakovich symphony which moves fast without trying to be sarcastic or deliberately lightweight. There is nothing satirical about the music. Shostakovich seems to mean it. Even so, the slow movement here becomes a necessary interlude for the battered listener, not a finger-drumming exercise for your watch battery.

And since we are being revisionist…who hasn’t found himself wishing the Shostakovich Fifth had a few more bass drum hits in the finale? There are only nine, after all. Well, no problem here! The finale of the Twelfth comes to a conclusion requiring one impossible cymbal, timpani and bass drum climax after another. You get to hear the “ending of the Fifth” about five times over, and scored even better! There is something about the way Shostakovich writes cymbal crashes—and something about the way Petrenko conducts them—that seems to forge the white light of an atomic explosion. That’s fine with me. And it was fine with the audience. I always suspected there had to be a bright side to Stalin’s getting the H bomb

Steven Kruger

About Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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