New York Arts in San Francisco

The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra at Davies Hall gets ready for its European tour

Elena Urioste. Photo Alessandra Tinozzi.

I had the good fortune of catching the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra by the tail last month, just as they set out on their tenth European tour. The orchestra has been wowing audiences at the Philharmonie, the Concertgebouw and the Mariinski ever since 1986. I suspect they will make a similar impact this time, under the baton of Donato Cabrera, who also stewards the Las Vegas Philharmonic and California Symphony these days.

Charles Dutoit conducts The San Francisco Symphony in Stravinsky, Elgar, and Mussorgsky/Ravel, with Gautier Capuçon, Cello

Charles Dutoit

It’s hard to recall a time when Stravinsky’s music carried with it the suggestion of impossible modernism. But it did—once. The appearance of Petrouchka on TV in 1960 made the viewer feel quite daring, I remember. It was “dissonant.” And the Rite of Spring, with all those purpose-led insect lives and braying jurassic fossils was just plain intimidating. Little did we know then that dinosaurs were merely large chickens and Stravinsky himself, if not exactly a pussycat, then about as threatening as a Russian wolfhound on Stupid Pet Tricks.

Michael Tilson Thomas Leads the San Francisco Symphony in Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” Symphony and Mahler’s Fourth

Leonard Bernstein in 1947. Photo Victor Kraft.

There is a sound you sometimes feel after midnight, high up in Manhattan. It comes from maybe thirty blocks away. Very faint. In the stillness of your mind, you know it is a lonely taxi horn dancing with the doppler effect. But in the small hours of the city, you wonder who might be riding home amongst sleeping millions, and how boozily, and what love affairs or personal dramas might now begin or end. New York is like that. In its darkness, taxis are crickets, and you listen.

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

Vasily Petrenko. Photo Mark McNulty.

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.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts The London Symphony Orchestra in Colin Matthews, Gershwin (with Yuja Wang), and Shostakovich

Yuja Wang

If you feel pursued by good luck, do we call it paranoia? This is the question I must answer lately, since it seems the London Symphony has chased me down in San Francisco—to my great delight!

Just a month ago, I had the good fortune of hearing Sir Mark Elder lead the orchestra in a solid Pathétique at the Barbican. By the time my visit was over, I had experienced the Berlin Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, the Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic, as well. What puzzled throughout all this listening was the difficulty of telling the orchestras apart in London’s Barbican and Festival Hall, clinical modern venues with limited reverberation and bass.

Christian Baldini conducts the San Francisco Symphony in John Luther Adams’s The Light that Fills the World; Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Schumann and Brahms, with Anne-Sophie Mutter

Composer John Luther Adams

This week’s program at Davies Hall had a split personality. Young contemporary music specialist Christian Baldini was onstage to lead the opening work, The Light That Fills the World, by Alaska composer J. L. Adams.  Michael Tilson Thomas then conducted the San Francisco Symphony in the Brahms concerto and Schumann symphony.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra at Davies Hall, San Francisco

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo Marco Borggreve.

In the first hundred years of our still budding love affair with Maurice Ravel, his orchestral works have come to us from many directions. But despite our familiarity, Ravel’s music remains enigmatic beneath its surface appeal. There is something “film-noir” about it. We are in a mystery. The lady has shown up at the detective agency wearing a veil….and one suspects it might take a Frenchman to lift it without getting his face slapped.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Griffes, Bartók, and Brahms, with Jeremy Denk, Piano

Susanna Mälkki. Photo Roni Rekomaa.

I had several motives in attending this concert. Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki is a fast rising star in the classical world, recently appointed Music Director of the Helsinki Philharmonic. I was eager to hear the rarely performed Griffes tone poem, a brilliant programming move. (We need to experience more “A” pieces from obscure composers of the past, I frequently argue.) And I was curious to see how Jeremy Denk would interact with Mälkki, since both musicians are of the brisk, sparky sort. The concert did not disappoint.

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