New York Arts in San Francisco

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.

pianoSonoma, a Unique Music Festival in the Sonoma Wine Country

Jessica and Michael Shinn

I have just recently learned about a different kind of music festival, pianoSonoma, which convenes annually in late July and early August at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, under the benevolent guidance of Co-Founders and Co-Directors Michael and Jessica Chow Shinn, both faculty members at the Juilliard School.

People attend music festivals for different reasons, most of which are passive, unless they happen to be Tanglewood Music Center Fellows or “young professionals” at Marlboro. They go as members of the audience to hear star musicians they would not normally find in their area, or they like to continue their experiences at Carnegie or Davies Hall in some pleasant rural setting suitable for a summer holiday. Their active participation is usually limited to laying out a picnic, consuming it, a listless read of tedious program notes, uncritical applause, and coping with post-concert congestion in the parking lots, especially after a manifestation of Lang Lang or Yo-Yo Ma.

MTT Conducts Johann Strauss Jr., Richard Strauss, Charles Ives, Lukas Foss, and György Ligeti

Michael Tilson Thomas

It would be hard to peg with certainty the guiding concept in Michael Tilson Thomas’ recent choral program for the San Francisco Symphony. As so often with MTT, the selections appear a sophisticated grab bag. But intuition suggests the topic of nature and the metaphysics which spring from appreciating it. Thomas’ introductory remarks for each piece certainly leaned in this direction. Mounting the podium, he reached for his mike and held it like a weapon overhead. This can often result in a verbal concert and the disapproval of old ladies in the audience. But the nature of the music was such that his remarks were appreciated and not too long.

Benjamin Grosvenor Plays Ravel with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony. Romeo and Juliet from Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and a Dash of Stravinsky

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor

Indian summer is a favorite time of year in San Francisco. The city’s deceptively cutting winds give way to something approaching balminess. And one gears up, if not for romance, then surely for a new Symphony season to warm the heart, excite the pulse and remind one that art is the password to beauty’s permanence. I’ve often commented about the happy spirit of our symphony…and do so again. There exist surly orchestras, whose players sit looking for all the world as though they’d gladly wring the conductor’s neck as play for him. (These tend to be Russian!) But before I’m accused of national prejudices, I should point out, as an old New Yorker, that the New York Philharmonic is quite capable of gathering onstage looking as though they’d like to kill each other! Perhaps it is Panglossian naïveté to think comity reigns here, but it certainly seemed so on Saturday.

A tip for our readers: How to get the most out of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review for the Arts.
What if I hate reading on computer screens, even tablets?
We get occasional inquiries from readers about whether we plan to launch a print edition of our arts journals. The answer is that we've given it some thought, and we're still thinking about it.
It is not only our older readers who object to reading them online. There are even some millennials who would rather read from paper. One of our readers got the simple idea of using the sites as sophisticated tables of contents. She prints out each article on three-hole paper and files them in a loose-leaf album. I've devoted a lot of time to finding the very best print and pdf facility there is. Just click on one of the icons at the top right of the article and print!
Click here to make your tax-deductible donation to The Arts Press, publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review. Or click on the notice in the sidebar. The Arts Press is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of The Arts Press must be made payable to“Fractured Atlas” only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.