by Philip Campbell
Recent weeks of concerts with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall have proved yet again just how versatile and thoroughly professional the orchestra's players are. It shouldn't come as a surprise, just a grateful and beautifully demonstrated reminder. The repertoire runs the gamut in periods, genres and styles, and it never seems to faze them. Performances are always accomplished with loyal observance of the conductor's wishes and clear dedication to their own musical integrity.
In mid-May, guest conductor Marek Janowski led a weighty program of Central European fare, and his fairly conventional selections, the Brahms Double Concerto and Schumann Symphony No. 4 and Manfred Overture, are undoubtedly the lifeblood of most symphonic institutions. We can expect the musicians to respond to such assignments with all of their considerable training and experience in play.
It was the always welcome return of guest conductor David Robertson last week, however, that offered total contrast in repertoire and a bolder emphasis on the personality of the players and their awesome range. If not really contemporary, Robertson's entire bill was essentially modern in attitude and effect. Presenting a program that highlighted the impact of jazz in the concert hall on both sides of the Atlantic was a good showcase for the orchestra, and especially for the terrific guest appearance of pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. The outcome of the concert was also a rip-roaring way to start the Memorial Day weekend.
Beginning with a sprightly and amusing introduction to listeners of the opening Variations for Orchestra by American composer Elliott Carter ("Hello, my name is David, and I will be your conductor this evening"), Robertson got the whole show off and running with just the right note of anticipation and understanding. Letting us know that the last time the Variations were heard with the SFS, Robertson was only five years old, helped to emphasize the complicated and rather difficult-listening (and performing) experience the piece presents. Putting the score into the context of the McCarthy era may have been a bit of a stretch, but it showed the conductor's wish to personalize the music and give the audience an entry and insight to Carter's intentions. The performance itself was clear, gorgeously articulated and engrossing. It will always be a challenging composition, but it turned out to be a lot less daunting than we might have feared.
Enter Marc-Andre Hamelin for a marvelous rendition of Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and the evening really caught fire. The jazzy sonorities of the Concerto (1930) were invented six years after Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924), and the influence of Gershwin's bluesy and (dare we say?) ballsy inspiration is apparent everywhere. This is Ravel in a darker, stronger and angrier mode than we usually associate with him. Hamelin tore through the piece with intensity and power, but he didn't stint on emotion and roughhewn beauty. When he finished the final dramatic credenza, I almost felt a sympathetic pain in my left hand. What a knockout punch!
Photo: San Francisco Symphony
The second half brought the soloist back to the stage (presumably after icing his left hand during intermission) for a joyously lively performance of the aforementioned Rhapsody in Blue . Both conductor and soloist knew exactly what they wanted from Gershwin's iconic score. What they achieved was a rhythmically taut tempo throughout that made all of the details of Ferde Grofe's somewhat sumptuous orchestration sound bright and freshly-minted. The SFS sounded like a big, exciting dance band, and individual soloists, especially Carey Bell on clarinet nailing the famous introduction, proved they can really swing. The liberation of the Rhapsody from Pops concerts and Fourth of July celebrations, and placing it back on a symphony hall bill, along with Hamelin's irresistible playing (catch some of his jazz-influenced albums on compact disc), made even the most staid audience members whoop and stomp with happiness.
The evening ended with Robertson's treatment of Ravel's rueful backward glance at another vanished era, La Valse .
The SFS obviously has a good rapport with David Robertson, and it shows. Even his curtain calls were entertaining, with the energetic conductor jumping from platform to platform to congratulate sections and players.