Davies Hall, San Francisco
June 20, 2015
The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra
Donato Cabrera, conductor
Elena Urioste, violin
Mason Bates – Garages of the Valley
Bruch – Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Opus 26
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, Opus 14
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.
I’ve learned in recent decades no longer to expect youth orchestras to sound wet behind the ears. It’s almost a puzzle for someone of an older generation to witness how accomplished young players are today. Where did the virtuosity and especially—the accurate sense of pitch—come from? When I was a student, youth orchestras sounded like attempts to herd cats. Yet the evidence is all around us. In an era supposedly inclined to ignore the great traditions of classical music,YouTube is filled with worthy and listenable efforts by high school groups and university orchestras. And when you sit down in Davies Hall to hear SF’s young amateurs—you hear an orchestra, pure and simple.
Mason Bates’ Garages of the Valley is an excellent choice for this tour. Europeans are very much aware of San Francisco as the creative source of our internet world. And garages have become icons in our history. As Silicon Valley matures, its workers are moving into San Francisco proper—the blandishment of urbanity. But in the past, as folk wisdom tells us, all you needed was a garage, a computer screen, a vista of the mountains in the distance, and enough marijuana to keep from being bored.
Bates’ music could easily be enlisted for the next big movie about Silicon Valley. False starts of computer invention are mimicked in trouble the music has getting going. And while the general feel is of marimbas, soft strings and brass, all sorts of shifting harmonies below avoid cadences you think are about to happen. It is a tease. Somehow you get the sense that things are “electrical.” And echoing trumpets, as if from the movie Patton, suggest a metaphysical template for the drama of invention. The piece whirls nicely full circle to the stop and start with which it began.
The Youth Orchestra, with ten basses arrayed stage left, dispatched the music as if it were child’s play. Donato Cabrera proved himself not only a clear choreographer of sound on the podium, but also able to evoke energy and visible good cheer as suited the proceedings.
He was joined in the Bruch Concerto by Elena Urioste, a pretty Curtis-trained brunette who had her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at thirteen and recently was named a BBC New Generation Artist. Urioste’s tone is smooth and utterly scrape-free, her delivery romantic, gentle and without affectation. She is powering up what will surely be a fine career. The orchestra matched her subtlety and produced an unusually fine and soft introduction to the slow movement.
The big wallop for the tour, of course, is the Symphonie fantastique. This is an incredibly ambitious work for a young orchestra. Not only is everything exposed, as it is in Mozart, but often exposed in a way which might seem ugly unless done perfectly. Berlioz, largely trained on the guitar, was notorious for writing bass lines that don’t cover anything. There are few places in Berlioz where one can hide in the texture. That said, the SF Youth Orchestra did wonders with the work. If I had any criticism, it would be that the horns hadn’t quite figured out their group sonority in the March to the Scaffold. There was a slight “wah-wah” in sustained notes suggestive of a Serbian village funeral. But I expect that was my critic’s ears reacting! You might say the performance was a bit cautious and the percussion a bit tame. But I expect all this will have firmed up on the other side of the pond and everyone will ultimately let go with a frenzy.
The performance ended with two encores, one the Fauré Pavane. The other I didn’t know, but it sounded bouncy, mostly for piccolo and percussion—Chabrier, I’d guess. The Fauré is often found at funerals and used to be the sign off music on TV for test patterns. But it was so prettily done here, nobody died or fell asleep!
I’m glad I attended this concert. The concert pulled in a good house for a sunny afternoon. Classical music is always supposedly in crisis. Yet the young do better by it than previous generations. If the San Francisco Youth Symphony is any indicator, symphony orchestras will dazzle future generations as never before. One need not be Voltaire’s Pangloss to suggest our long term worries are misplaced.