The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, Donato Cabrera, conductor, with Chen Zhao, violin, and Katie Kadarauch, viola in Mason Bates, Mozart, and Bartók

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San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, 2014. Photo Kristen Loken.

San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, 2014. Photo Kristen Loken.

Davies Hall, San Francisco
May 15, 2016

The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra
Donato Cabrera, conductor
Chen Zhao, violin
Katie Kadarauch, viola
Mason Bates – Devil’s Radio
Mozart – Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, K.364(320d)
Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra

Mason Bates will surely forgive us–if I suggest the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra out-deviled everyone at this concert!

For a Saturday afternoon in May, Davies Hall was well attended, with a more jovial parental buzz than usual. Lots of children were in the audience. Hope springs eternal they won’t fidget–utopian when dealing with three-year-olds inclined to crawl. One of the forward boxes resembled a puppy-pen throughout, with lots of motion, aleatoric burbling and various appendages attempting to escape the banister. But no matter.The music won.

A continuing surprise was the astonishing excellence of the ensemble Donato Cabrera has trained. Something mysteriously wonderful is happening in our student orchestras. They no longer play out of tune, not compared with youth groups of the past. I’m old enough to remember. One speculates whether the IT explosion has subtly trained children’s ears–more music to hear which is perfectly done. Whatever the reason, standards are now higher. Simply put, Donato Cabrera wasn’t standing in front of a student orchestra. He was conducting an orchestra–a good one.

How good became clearest in the Mozart Sinfonia concertante. Mozartean textures don’t let a player hide behind the sound of someone else. Mozart’s music is a weave composed of equal strands. Every line matters. Each phrase must dovetail–smoothly and effortlessly–and with a conscious attempt at beauty. I don’t know, with eyes closed, if I’d have thought I was listening to anything but a fully professional ensemble, transparent, jewel-smooth and plummy at the same time. Our soloists, too, were stellar.

Several audience members were shocked to titters at seeing Chen Zhao and Katie Kadarauch appear onstage—extremely aged “youths”, you might say! Zhao is actually the Youth Orchestra’s violin coach and a member of the SFS. Katie Kadarauch is Assistant Principal Viola with the orchestra. A statuesque blonde, she towered over her partner. But it was her rich beautiful sonority, nearly cello-like–which towered in my mind. Chen Zhao reminded us, as well, that every string player in the SFS could have chosen a world-caliber solo career. Donato Cabrera’s way with the Mozart was Bruno Walterish and lovely. Key in the Sinfonia concertante is what you might call the “central heartbreak duet” in the Andante. It certainly broke mine…

Mozart can be a slog for children, though. The puppy pen was active. And just below my box sat an imperially bored Bieberish blond teenager with an astonishing resemblance to the young Donald Trump. He had found the Devil’s Radio interesting–but now gave in to something between sleep and impatient moral weariness at having to be there.

Devil’s Radio is not one of Mason Bates’ electronic pieces. It’s a bustling instrumental work which refers to the idea of “rumor” and sets out to spread it ever larger. It’s charm and motion falls nicely on the ear, sounding like American Prokofiev, with touches of Roy Harris and the Casella of Paganiniana. That’s to say–it’s accessible. Composers appear to have learned there isn’t much more you can do with harmony than has already been done. A century of failed dodecaphony indicates that. What remains for originality, though, is capturing our new inventions and daily sounds. Just as Gershwin brought us taxis and Hindemith a sense of the machine age, composers like Mason Bates seem destined ultimately to chronicle our techno times in music. More power to him.

Our Piece de resistance here, of course was the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Cabrera led a gleaming account, energetic, creepy when necessary and very lovely where it mattered to have a touch of rubato. The woodwinds took off nicely in the part of the finale I tend to call the “Scottish Reel”. And the orchestra was especially atmospheric in the Elegy, conveying almost a Holstian sense of interplanetary mystery. As the great brass peroration–which always sounds to me like music played backwards–brought the Concerto for Orchestra to a triumphant conclusion, I noticed the puppy pen was motionless and that the young Donald was back on board with us.

That’s what you hope for at youth concerts–that the young are still with you. But this was real music, gorgeously presented. And if you were a parent, surely you thought, “This is what keeps me young.”

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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