Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Symphony's big bang


MTT conducts the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Stefan Cohen/SFS
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It is early in the San Francisco Symphony's new season, but Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas has already covered a lot of ground. With engaging appearances by strong guest artists and virtuosic playing by the orchestra, September concerts have set an exciting pace. Giving Hector Berlioz his place in the "Three Bs" of music (well, let's make that four now and counting) and adding Bartok and Bernstein to the list, MTT is reminding us how thrilling live performances of the classics can be, and started the season's celebration of Leonard Bernstein's birth centennial with a big bright bang.

Most recently, American pianist (and insightful writer) Jeremy Denk made a very organized and energetic attack on the Steinway at Davies Symphony Hall with a breathtaking and thoughtful interpretation of Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2. The composer may have intended a cheerful, albeit characteristically moody musical style, but he made daunting demands of the soloist and gave the orchestra (especially the horns) a heavy-duty assignment, too. Successfully moving through the drill of the busy piece with scarcely a hair out of place, the horns were precise and forceful, and Denk amazed the audience with his combination of control and understanding. His encore, from a Mozart Sonata, offered an astute contrast, returning everyone's blood pressure to normal, and cooling the piano down as well.

The temperature went right back up after intermission with a superbly crafted rendition of Berlioz's famous "Symphonie fantastique." MTT has a proven track record with the composer, and we have been treated to his affinity for the wildly popular Opus 14 before. He is still fascinated and obviously wants to share. We were treated to an instinctual reading that has been refined to an exquisite degree. The subtleties of the melodies were so sensuously expressed one could almost feel them, and the frightening impact of the bizarre final episodes roused the audience to a standing ovation.

The week before, MTT was also in top form with one of his lifelong signature composers, the late, truly great Leonard Bernstein. There is more to come in the ongoing celebration of Lenny's magnificent legacy, and the first installment cleverly programmed works from early to late compositions.

Biographer Humphrey Burton joined MTT onstage for a pre-concert talk (with movies!) stressing Bernstein's diversity. When his youngest daughter Nina made a surprise visit, she repeated their praise of her dad's multi-talented career and made clear why his appeal remains universal. Composer, conductor, performer, educator and humanitarian, Bernstein embodied all roles. He would have been famous in any one of them. He was gay, but his wife Felicia Montealegre knew it and loved him just the same. Lenny really loved people, and they loved him back.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny were on hand during the second half of the kick-off concert to sing Bernstein's late song cycle "Arias and Barcarolles." Young, attractive and vocally able, the pair looked like they could be the married couple at the heart of some of the songs. The selections are marred slightly by a few rather twee moments, and some of the writing might only appeal to musical sophisticates, but no one could be immune to the composer's genuine sentimentality or gift for melody.

Leonard's lovely rendition of the brief, heart-catching "Greeting" brought a hush to the auditorium that prompted the young woman behind me to whisper, "That was really beautiful" to her boyfriend. I couldn't have agreed more. Leonard's all-Bernstein recital for San Francisco Performances will be reviewed next week. McKinny will appear next in San Francisco Opera's premiere of John Adams' "Girls of the Golden West."

Ragnar Bohlin's accomplished SFS Chorus featured prominently during the first half, with boy soprano Nicholas Hu making a moving solo contribution in Bernstein's charming (and happily jumpy) "Chichester Psalms."

Bernstein had it all: jazz, heart, and a genius magpie approach to synthesizing musical ideas. The concert opened with his hard-edged "Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs" featuring principal clarinetist Carey Bell. It got the musical establishment's attention a long time back, and it sounds just as cheeky today.

The evening ended with MTT's joy ride through the Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story." The musicians obviously enjoyed it as much as the audience. Snapping their fingers in unison and lustily shouting, "Mambo," they turned Davies from concert hall to dance hall in a New York minute.


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