Friday, November 9, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

The big piece on last night's program was the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1. For some reason, though I like his piano concertos, I've never got on with Shostakovich's string concertos, either violin or cello. The orchestration is vintage S., in sound and style, but the meandering solo part doesn't have the melodic incise I otherwise expect.

Soloist Karen Gomyo, who while playing takes on the severe dour expression of David Oistrakh, for whom the concerto was originally written, gave her part an exceedingly raw and rough tone, sounding every bit like an inescapable evocation of horsehair scraping over catgut, regardless of whatever it is her Stradivarius (yes, that crass sound came from a Strad) actually uses. She switched to a more commonplace smooth dephysicalized style for her encore, a slinky bit of Piazzolla.

But I was there mostly to hear Borodin's Second Symphony, in hopes of exorcising from my mind the last time I heard this out-of-fashion piece in concert, over a decade ago, when its thick and heavy orchestration congealed into a wad of unpalatable mud. And that was from a visiting Russian orchestra! This time was far better and succeeded in pleasing. The secret of the diacritically enhanced Czech guest conductor, Jakub Hrůša, seemed to be the vigor and clarity he gave to the rhythms, phrasing, and accents.

I slipped out of the hall before the last piece, Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin, a work described by its own composer as "hellish" and by me once in a review as sounding like a hideous traffic jam on the freeway. It still can be fascinating to listen to, but I've heard it three times in concert in the last few years, and that's enough.

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