New York Arts in San Francisco

Herbert Blomstedt leads The San Francisco Symphony in a rare Swedish masterpiece, Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 in G minor.

Vilhelm Stenhammar in 1916

One could wait a lifetime for this concert! I nearly did. And while Herbert Blomstedt is in his 90s now, you can only suppose—lucky man to be Swedish—he didn’t spend as many years wondering what the Stenhammar Second Symphony would sound like in concert. Wilhelm Stenhammar is Sweden’s greatest composer, after all, not without honor in his own country, like Vaughan Williams in England or Martinů in the Czech Republic. But it has taken time in the modern era to recognize which quieter and deeper voices from a nation’s immediate past are the ones we will take to heart internationally. I can only thank Blomstedt profoundly for carrying this symphony on his guest-conducting rounds. Senior conductors can be influential that way. Erich Leinsdorf adopted the Martinů Fourth Symphony in his later years, and the work is now well established in concert halls far and wide. One hopes for a similar outcome here.

Jakub Hrůša and Piotr Anderszewski reach a high level with the San Francisco Symphony

Jakub Hrůša. Photo Andreas Herzau.

2017 certainly seems to be a season for auspicious debuts and returns at the San Francisco Symphony! No sooner do we calm down slightly from Krzysztof Urbański’s Polish Lancer charge upon the Shostakovich Tenth, than it’s gobsmack-time once again from Eastern Europe: Jakub Hrůša’s levitating debut in a mostly Czech program few will forget!

Krzysztof Urbański and Augustin Hadelich impress with the San Francisco Symphony

Krzysztof Urbański. Photo Maria Maślanka.

You never know when San Francisco will prove even weirder than you think, but Fleet Week is surely a good candidate for strangeness at the symphony. The US Navy’s Blue Angels air ballet is a reliable tourist magnet when it comes to town, drawing unaccustomed crowds far and wide, and some visitors, suitably strafed and deafened, wind up at the symphony. This explains Bermuda shorts and flip flops in Saturday’s audience and a tendency to applaud in the wrong places. I’m not sure it explains an ill-tempered dowager who shouted her disapproval of the music and had to be removed. Nor did anyone, official or otherwise, manage to decode bizarre noises repeatedly emanating from, well. somewhere….I get ahead of myself. It was an interesting evening!

Vasily Petrenko leads the SF Symphony in Glinka, Lalo, and Rachmaninoff, with Joshua Bell, violin

Vasily Petrenko

I don’t know how many in the audience had ever heard anything like it, a symphony dragging itself to a conclusion like a wounded beast over shrieking strings, bass drum rolls gone mad, brass, cymbals and tam tam flashing like jaws and teeth. And then, there was that set of hall-flattening final chords, like crates dropped on the stage, followed by silence for five seconds, broken only by a quiet “Jesus!” under someone’s breath. Welcome to the Rachmaninoff First Symphony!

Charles Dutoit conducts the San Francisco Symphony with Emanuel Ax, piano, in Sibelius, Mozart, de Falla, and Debussy

Gustave Courbet, The_Wave, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Scotland

If you ever wonder how Sibelius’ music seems to come in two styles, one bardic, noble, warmly patriotic and slightly thumpy; the other austere, cerebral, craggy and interplanetary, think Karelia. This is the eastern portion of Finland near the White Sea, where ancient forms of native song and poetry still obtained at the turn of the last century. As Vaughan Williams scoured England for folksong and Bartók transcribed them in Hungary, a similar romantic enthusiasm for Finnish roots swept young Finns of the day. Karelianism, it was called, and Sibelius’ suite derives from the music he wrote for the Karelia Pageant of 1893, which represented something of a culmination of the movement. The opening “Intermezzo”, otherwise a contradiction in terms, was in fact used to separate two tableaux within the festivities.

Emmanuel Villaume leads the Prague Philharmonia in Smetana and Dvořák, with Gautier Capuçon, cello

Emmanuel Villaume and the Prague Philharmonia

must have been in a Fantasia mood for this program—funnybone at the ready. There was something cartoon-friendly about the array on stage Sunday afternoon—an orchestra half the usual size—an enormously tall conductor in black maitre d’ tails with a huge bald head, black goatee and a tiny baton—a remarkably small cellist by his side. Were we about to hear a concert in caricature by the Katzenjammer Kids? It would seem so. My bad!

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