San Francisco Symphony with Alondra de la Parra conductor and Joyce Yang, piano in Glinka, Rachmaninoff, and Mussorgsky

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Alondra de la Parra. Photo Courtney Perry.

Alondra de la Parra. Photo Courtney Perry.

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, July 23, 2010

Alondra de la Parra, Conductor
Joyce Yang, piano

Glinka, Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Opus 30
Mussorgsky-Ravel, Pictures at an Exhibition

Summer concerts in the city are frequently revealing in their own several ways. A quick look around Davies Hall last Friday would have reminded locals that there is no need to escape San Francisco in July. Many of the regular faces were present, and so, too, were throngs of young couples in from the suburbs. In the shirt-sleevy dusk, Van Ness Avenue and its many venues seemed the focal point of date night. The line for will-call tickets snaked around the block.

Inside the hall, the audience geared up for what you might call “heaviness lite”, which is to say a concert of upbeat pieces from the major symphonic repertoire, delivered with a maximum of effect and a minimum of rehearsal. This one was called “my classic Russian Composers.”

These things are understated in San Francisco, so only the faintest blue light playing on the organ pipes indicated the presence of fail-safe summer fare, and the program notes were a bit less detailed than usual. The orchestra, too, was dressed down a bit in do-it-yourself black, shirt-fronts and tailored coats mostly having been abandoned. The mass pullover-effect brought to mind a platoon of frogmen, I thought. Perhaps, after the concert, these special ops types would storm some objective in the back alley by cover of night and disappear by submarine. Otherwise, it might as well have been a regular subscription concert.

This was Alondra de la Parra’s debut week with the San Francisco Symphony, and Friday’s program was the penultimate of several presented, so there were bound to be limitations in the perfection of the musical results. But it was noteworthy to see how well this fast-rising Mexican-American conductor communicated the basic needs of the evening with energy and sensitivity. The orchestra would take care of the rest, with a few shaky moments along the way that scarcely anyone noticed.

The Glinka overture is, quite literally, a curtain raiser, and Ms. de la Parra and the orchestra lifted it off the page it with lightness and dash. Like many of the new generation of conductors, de la Parra beats time as a sort of whiplash, so the music tends to flash forward, but there is a moderating grace in her left hand that gives the music relaxation and a yacht-like sleekness. Some conductors end up, fifty years down the line, being plodders. I do not think Ms. de la Parra will. She moves with restraint but dances with the sound.

If the Glinka didn’t really give forth more insight than this, then the Rachmaninoff concerto certainly revealed a sensitive accompanist, who managed to get the orchestra growling its way into the first movement cadenza in a way I hadn’t heard before. But it was Joyce Yang, in her San Francisco debut, who delivered the stunning level of excitement everyone experienced, with her performance of the Rachmaninoff. This Korean-born, New York-based pianist, brought forth from the San Francisco audience as visceral and sustained a standing ovation as I’ve heard in response to a concerto. And it was deserved.

Local audiences most recently experienced the Rachmaninoff Third in Dennis Matsuev’s magisterial account, with Valery Gergiev. For comparison, both pianists project powerfully — Matsuev like a gentle giant who doesn’t know his own strength — Joyce Yang like a compact massage therapist who does. Amazingly, Yang’s was the more powerful, more grippingly to-the-core of the two performances. She knew when to blend in with the orchestra and when to attack as from without, with astonishingly powerful syncopations.

The tempi Ms.Yang chose were completely mainstream, but the power she put behind the notes was heavier and darker than Matsuev’s. Joyce Yang may burst onstage with a girlish eagerness similar to Yuja Wang’s, with whom she will surely be compared, but both her playing and her physical manner bespeak a more traditionally romantic, less crystalline and more fully sensual temperament.

There is pink dress creaminess in her tone and use of pedal. When the orchestra plays without her, Yang sways slightly to the pulse of  the phrase. Without capitulating to Lang Lang’s lurid facial theatricalities, she emotes…. When she walks offstage, it is with a touch of slow and knowing undulation. Choosing an encore, she speaks cozily to the audience, totally at home on the edge of the stage, then plays a Chopin/Liszt adaptation called “My Joy”, winding up with the perfect romantic diminuendo. And all of it defies caricature, because it is done with a natural sense of romance, balance and taste. And, when necessary, incredible power. The audience was repeatedly made breathless. She’ll be back.

They both will, I expect. To bring the evening to a close, Alondra de la Parra led the orchestra in a mainstream and exciting rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. “Get your video camera out! This is going to be a doozey!” the man behind me said to his wife. It was. Even a violent and accidental kettledrum entrance during “Bydlo” was in the spirit of the proceedings.

Pictures is an immensely effective piece of music, and that is part of its problem. It is more or less conductor-proof. Because it is a transcribed piano piece, it has almost no sustained sonorities. There is nothing in the way of string tone to polish or extend. You can’t tamper with tempo much, either, because the passepied marking the stroll of the exhibition’s protagonist is pretty much stable throughout. So, what CAN you do? Eduardo Mata used to perform the brass lines of the piece in a legato manner. So did Giulini, more slowly. That’s about it. So, if I say the piece came off well, that may or may not say anything about its conductor. No doubt I exaggerate. Alondra de la Parra will surely conduct here another time, and we’ll see then what she is really all about.

Until then, our concertgoers will celebrate date night with good music that almost plays itself — and good weather.  May the Gods of the Northeast be equally benign!

About the author

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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