by Philip Campbell
Our coverage of recent San Francisco Symphony concerts at Davies Symphony Hall will be more report than review this week. At this writing, a serious and alarming event during last Saturday night's performance by William Bennett of the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto has made a simple review seem superfluous.
The admired and well-liked Principal Oboist of the SFS and occupant of the Edo de Waart Chair since 1987 collapsed onstage a few moments after completing the excruciatingly difficult opening solo of the Strauss Concerto. A stunned audience sat powerless while guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier rushed to his side and asked for a doctor. Since it was Saturday night at the Symphony, there were more than a few responders. Several shielded the stricken soloist from view and made him comfortable until the ambulance arrived.
A doctor sitting directly behind me returned after taking a look and said Bennett was breathing and had a good pulse. It seemed longer, but it was only about seven minutes before the EMTs arrived to stabilize the patient, who had suffered a brain hemorrhage. Approximately five minutes later, they took him out of the hall. It was a surreal experience for the crowd of several thousand, impotent to help and literally unable to look away. Judging by the faces of Bennett's orchestral colleagues, everyone was in a state of shock.
The horrible feeling of helplessness was the probable explanation for the round of applause that erupted when the attendants left with Bennett. It was something like when an injured sportsman leaves the field, and it may have been partially in gratitude for the responders. Whatever the reasons, it was bizarre but at least allowed a chance to show some support. An announcement said there would be an extended intermission, and the concert would close with the performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 1 in C minor as planned.
In true "the show must go on" fashion, Tortelier returned to lead a buoyant Mendelssohn First, and the hearty troupers of the SFS never missed a beat with their response. These were the first SFS performances of the 15-year-old composer's work from 1824. The influences of composers like Bach and Mozart are apparent throughout, but Tortelier made it sound like wonderfully plumped-up Haydn, with a nicely judged edge of Beethovian ferocity as well. The results were both involving and convincing. Seriously though, have you ever heard a score by Mendelssohn that didn't ultimately prove a charmer?
The unexpectedly dramatic evening began happily enough with the delightful orchestration by Henri Busser of Debussy's piano four-hands Petite Suite. Maestro Tortelier shares a Gallic sensibility with the composer, and it translates well in his deceptively nonchalant handling of the score. There was real strength behind the beautifully transparent string playing, and the performance should have been the perfect set-up for William Bennett's star turn.
Yan Pascal Tortelier, son of the legendary cellist Paul Tortelier and current associate of many major international orchestras, has appeared at DSH as recently as 2011, and continues a growing tradition of welcome guest appearances. His appropriate response to the medical emergency and his professionalism throughout the rest of the evening increased our regard.
The previous week at DSH featured an altogether different sort of guest conductor. Pablo Heras-Casado made his debut with the SFS in 2010 and has returned as recently as January 2012. At 35, the young firebrand from Granada, Spain is still making debut appearances with famous orchestras all over the globe. That he manages to increase respect for his serious musicianship amid the buzz is noteworthy, too.
I did notice a little disconnect between the passionate leadership of Heras-Casado and the more measured response of the orchestra during the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony on the second half of the program. The conductor's big gestures and urgent coaxing were tempered by moments of strict control, and the SFS players appeared to be giving it their all, but it was not until the end that I felt any sense of emotional involvement. It sounded fabulous – it just didn't grab me with the visceral urgency of prior performances.
The first half of the bill featured another big, eventful piece with another exciting guest artist. Pianist Stephen Hough powered through an amazing Liszt Concerto No. 2 with enough poetry to please the naysayers and enough bravura to have the thrillseekers checking for traces of blood on the keyboard. I confess to a guilty pleasure in most of Liszt, and the Second Concerto rates high on the list. It was perfect having an intelligent and tasteful interpreter, with the requisite virtuosity, make the case.
Hough's encore, a limpid Chopin Nocturne, could have earned him even more bows, but he chose to depart in a peak of triumph (maybe to get backstage and ice his hands).
The program started with a boisterous first West Coast performance of Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg's EXPO (2009). At just 10 minutes, EXPO immediately put me in mind of John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine. It is also a fast ride, but with a snow machine, and it is just as raucous and kaleidoscopic as the popular American curtain-raiser.