Tag Archive: San Francisco Symphony

Summer Russians: The San Francisco Symphony
, Edwin Outwater, conductor
 Conrad Tao, piano

Conrad Tao. Photo Ruiming Wang.

There is a special feeling at Davies Hall in summer. The weather is balmy, if we are lucky. The sun is still up as the concert begins. But our hair is let down. Children are present, and young people dot the aisles in remarkable stages of undress. The air of eager informality is like a visit to the movies—minus the smell of popcorn. And, musically speaking, here we sometimes get the chance to hear romantic rarities we secretly love.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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