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French masters bring concert hall flair

by Philip Campbell

Last Friday night's San Francisco Symphony concert featured conductor Fabien Gabel and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Photo: Kristen Loken
Last Friday night's San Francisco Symphony concert featured conductor Fabien Gabel and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Photo: Kristen Loken  

The San Francisco Symphony's February concerts cover the orchestra's full dynamic range. From Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt's mastery of tradition to Music Director Designate Esa-Pekka Salonen's contemporary flair, Davies Symphony Hall glows with lively energy. Beautiful Chinese lanterns celebrating the Lunar New Year add a sense of occasion, while a display on the First Tier features highlights of departing Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas' fabulous 25 years.

Venerable maestro Herbert Blomstedt wrapped his annual visit with soul-nourishing performances of Beethoven and Brahms. An enthusiastic 20-something listener confided curiosity about the conductor's eminent reputation. I was heartened to see the old lion still selling out DSH on a Friday night. Grateful crowds rewarded him with standing ovations fit for a rock star.

Coinciding perfectly with Valentine's Day, the US Premiere of Hollywood composer Aaron Zigman's "Tango Manos" fit nicely into a bill called "French Masters: Thibaudet & Saint-Saens' 'Organ' Symphony." The entertaining program, conducted by Quebec Symphony Orchestra Music Director Fabien Gabel in his SFS debut, started with Paul Dukas' luscious short ballet "La Peri." The composer, obviously influenced by Ravel, wrote a lovely piece deserving concert performance. The musicians responded with shimmering sound and rhythmic impulse, but some were buried in full-tilt. If you only know the composer's famous "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," Gabel offered a tempting alternative.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet appeared next for Aaron Zigman's "Tango Manos," Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Thibaudet originally suggested Zigman to Long Yu, founder and former artistic director of the Beijing Music Festival, as a contender for a projected tango concerto. Noted for many film scores, the composer first worked successfully with the celebrated French pianist on the soundtrack music for the 2017 "Wakefield" starring Bryan Cranston. Thibaudet loves the music of Argentina, and his previous experience with Zigman came to mind for the work co-commissioned with Beijing Music Festival, Radio France, and the San Francisco Symphony.

Three distinct movements show the composer's gift for melody and orchestration. The inherent sexiness of the dance permeates the score, and SFS players proved their versatility. Confidently responding to Zigman's sinuous beat and the conductor's lead, they lifted the score to a higher level. As a stimulating selection for a Pops concert, "Tango Manos" has an assured future. Comparing it to the music of renowned Argentine tango composer, bandoneon player and arranger Astor Piazzolla, some listeners were puzzled, but everyone agreed it was fun. Thibaudet tore through the grander pages, caressed the softer moments, and seduced with trademark style. Who could resist?

The evening closed with Saint-Saens' massive but gloriously detailed Symphony No. 3, "Organ." An audience favorite, the Third also provides an opportunity to blow the dust from the pipes of DSH's magnificent Ruffatti organ. Jonathan Dimmock essayed the leading role with powerful clarity, and the Orchestra, after some shrill moments in the beginning, followed conductor Gabel to an expectably triumphant (and big) finale.

This week, Esa-Pekka Salonen appears with soprano Julia Bullock, artist-in-residence this season, for a rare performance of Benjamin Britten's haunting "Les Illuminations" with words by Rimbaud. Next, Salonen closes February conducting his own highly praised Violin Concerto with the dedicatee Leila Josefowicz playing. Beethoven's Overture to "King Stephen" is included with Danish composer Carl Nielsen's powerful Symphony No. 5. sfsymphony.org.

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