San Francisco Symphony

HHA

Fabien Gabel conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Dukas, Zigman, and Saint-Saëns, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano, and Jonathan Dimmock, Organ

Last weekend the San Francisco Symphony, surely unbeknownst, gave me a Valentine's Day card masquerading as a pair of tickets! I don't honestly recall a concert in recent years I've enjoyed more than this one. I've known and loved Paul Dukas' ballet score La Peri for more than fifty years without ever hearing it live, and as a dedicated Francophile in music, I am always delighted to hear again Camille Saint-Saëns' iconic and fascinatingly structured Organ Symphony. Add to this the fact that I grew up in the wilds of Latin America and learned to tango just about when couples abandoned cutting a rug with each other on the dance floor in favor of wriggling in place, and you can imagine how a piano concerto based on Tango would evoke a special warmth and affection in someone like me. So I am writing more as a fan than as a critic this time.
Music

The San Francisco Symphony under James Gaffigan with Hélène Grimaud in Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart and Barber

What a wonderful work is Barber's First Symphony! I will argue in a moment that it is America's greatest. If I review our program a bit backwards this time, it's because we don't hear this piece often enough—or nearly at all in San Francisco. (The last outing here was in 1963 under Howard Mitchell). But it was worth the wait, not the least because of James Gaffigan's white-hot performance. Indeed, Barber's concluding timpanic growl brought the audience to its feet screaming, a fitting wind-up for a concert of bravos, and reaffirmed our sense that James Gaffigan has become a major conductor.

Music

Christian Reif leads the San Francisco Symphony in Strauss, Lutosławski, and Prokofiev, with Johannes Moser, cello.

I'm often struck, when I attend concerts, with how much it matters what we see happening onstage. Ears aren't everything. And sometimes they are not enough. This is doubly true if an audience is presented with the sort of modern music which trades in humor, sly remarks, and attitude, like the Lutosławski Cello Concerto, which received its San Francisco premiere this week nearly fifty years after it was composed. I'm happy to report the concerto was a triumph worth the wait, but its success with our audience was to a large degree determined by the mini-skit taking place onstage. Fortunately, Christian Reif and Johannes Moser are natural comedians, sufficiently so to dispel any notions that Germans are too uptight to be funny! And our close sight lines in Davies Hall, where it is easy to witness a performer's face, surely played a part in what almost amounted to a Saturday Night Live routine.
Music

San Francisco Symphony Resident Conductor Christian Reif shines in Wagner, Liszt, and Holst, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano.

A number of years ago now-disgraced Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit brought down the house at Davies Hall with Holst's The Planets. I recall that evening well, a grand traditional performance. On a recent Sunday, though, San Francisco's Resident Conductor, 28 year-old German-born Christian Reif, did better than that. He not only delivered a white-hot account of Holst's interplanetary suite which will play well on Jupiter once the sounds get there. He jump-started what I hope will be a major career. As local music patrons are aware, Michael Tilson Thomas will be leaving our orchestra after another season. Under the circumstances, every guest conductor looms large in the institutional gimlet eye. Leonard Bernstein's conducting career, after all, rocketed when Bruno Walter caught a bout of the flu. Christian Reif's renown may well benefit from Charles Dutoit's bout with moral turpitude....
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San Francisco Symphony, Edward Gardner, conductor, Simon Trpčeski, piano, play Tippett, Gershwin, and Rachmaninoff

Though Michael Tilson Thomas doesn't step away from our podium officially until the summer of 2020, his recently announced departure ensures every guest conducting week at the San Francisco Symphony between now and then amounts to a job interview for the Music Directorship. English conductor Edward Gardner, current Music Director of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway and a frequent recording artist for Chandos with British orchestras, surely had this possibility in mind for his impressive debut program here last week: a shrewdly chosen British signature piece; a bow to MTT's New York Broadway roots with Gershwin, and Rachmaninoff's final blockbuster, written in America. He brought the house down.
Music

Herbert Blomstedt leads The San Francisco Symphony in a rare Swedish masterpiece, Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 in G minor.

One could wait a lifetime for this concert! I nearly did. And while Herbert Blomstedt is in his 90s now, you can only suppose—lucky man to be Swedish—he didn't spend as many years wondering what the Stenhammar Second Symphony would sound like in concert. Wilhelm Stenhammar is Sweden's greatest composer, after all, not without honor in his own country, like Vaughan Williams in England or Martinů in the Czech Republic. But it has taken time in the modern era to recognize which quieter and deeper voices from a nation's immediate past are the ones we will take to heart internationally. I can only thank Blomstedt profoundly for carrying this symphony on his guest-conducting rounds. Senior conductors can be influential that way. Erich Leinsdorf adopted the Martinů Fourth Symphony in his later years, and the work is now well established in concert halls far and wide. One hopes for a similar outcome here.
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