Davies Hall, San Francisco
June 17, 2017
The San Francisco Symphony
Vasily Petrenko, conductor
Joshua Bell, violin
Glinka – Capriccio brillante on the Jota aragonesa (1845)
Lalo – Symphonie espagnole, Opus 21 (1874)
Rachmaninoff – Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Opus 13 (1895)
I don’t know how many in the audience had ever heard anything like it, a symphony dragging itself to a conclusion like a wounded beast over shrieking strings, bass drum rolls gone mad, brass, cymbals and tam tam flashing like jaws and teeth. And then, there was that set of hall-flattening final chords, like crates dropped on the stage, followed by silence for five seconds, broken only by a quiet “Jesus!” under someone’s breath. Welcome to the Rachmaninoff First Symphony!
It is always exciting when Vasily Petrenko guest conducts our orchestra. But I don’t think anyone quite expected the triumph he pulled off with Rachmaninoff’s long neglected D minor symphony. This work, drunkenly premiered by Glazunov and lost during the composer’s lifetime, was reconstructed from orchestral parts and first performed again in 1945. It’s only gradually taken a place in the recorded catalogs. Eugene Ormandy’s surprisingly energized LP with the Philadelphia Orchestra brought it to the attention of record collectors stateside in 1966, and most conductors interested in Rachmaninoff eventually recorded the music. There’s been an increasing tendency, however, to stress the work’s heavier, lumbering moments and its morose, static strength, a mistake, I think, vividly demonstrated by Vasily Petrenko’s doing just the opposite. This is not Isle of the Dead.
Petrenko, literally quivering like a strung bow, launched breakneck instead into the growling brass that opens the symphony and took off like a Cossack in a horseback hurry. The symphony features contrasting melodies that tend to droop and fade away. Petrenko’s underlying rhythmic tension prevented the drying of paint, and the overall electricity at play made for grateful moments of respite in these. Even the slumbering, smokey slow movement was exciting. It keeps trying for romantic home runs but loses courage and repeatedly bunts. Getting through it a bit faster than usual was all to the good.
There is nothing like Davies Hall in a percussion moment, I often think. The particular acoustic of our stage makes for perfection in grand pseudo-barbaric climaxes. It doesn’t hurt, either, that our timpanist resembles Steve McQueen in a blunt mood you wouldn’t want to cross. The cymbal and drum opening of Rachmaninoff’s finale evoked some of the most joyous violence I’ve ever heard in a concert hall.
It was that sort of evening, perfection, really. The Glinka was illuminating. Listen to the 1845 Capriccio brillante on the Jota aragonesa and you realize immediately how much of the Spanish flavor inherent in later composers like Chabrier and Rimsky-Korsakov began here, right down to the castanets. There’s a sense of humor and a nice set of sonorous Berlioz-like brass moments. It’s a joyous piece.
Spice and excitement were the order of the day, too, in Lalo’s famous concerto. Petrenko’s tight marcato chords made the work seem almost angry, but then that’s Lalo: military snap at the end of nearly every phrase. Beguiling softness and charm were supplied by Joshua Bell, effortlessly and quietly. Bell has turned forty but still resembles the ever-youthful Tom Cruise of music. His technique remains effortless and his cheerful energy near-manic. Bell has always bent a knee and “dipped” as he attacks the violin. It seems to result in a tone on shock absorbers, smooth and utterly without scrape. This physical tendency to weave and bob has now become so pronounced, Bell repeatedly seemed to collapse a leg and fall through a manhole. But he could play upside down, and our audience would love it!
I’m reminded by enjoying a concert program this much that there is a lot of music out there that deserves to be heard. It need not be new. It need only be new to us.