Friday, February 28, 2020

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Final guest visit by Esa-Pekka Salonen (henceforth EPS) before he takes over as Music Director next season. Three works all of dramatic construction: that is, they all seemed more interested in startling juxtapositions and intently communicating impressions and images rather than forming a coherent and regular shape. But it became an enlightening and rewarding concert.

First and briefly, the Beethoven celebration got its oar in with the King Stephen Overture, possibly his most obscure in this form. Abrupt heavy blasts interrupting variously heavy-footed and whimsically clockwork jollity felt very odd, with intimations of both the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies.

EPS's own Violin Concerto, with soloist Leila Josefowicz for whom the work was written a decade ago. Dominated by the soloist who saws vigorously back and forth in the fast movements and gives lyric wanderings dominated by double-stops in the slow movements, with light and unusual accompaniment (e.g. a duet with muted trumpet), interrupted by occasional terrifying orchestral eruptions. A better piece than this sounds, it was consistently interesting and communicative, a rare thing in modern violin concertos and more effective than other works I've heard by EPS too.

Nielsen's Fifth Symphony. In the context of his earlier work, this piece sounds like a nervous breakdown, engendered either by shell-shock over World War I (which ended a couple years before this was written) or by the beginning of a breakdown in the composer's health. But unlike some composers' difficult late works, it's a masterpiece. The catastrophic episodes were impressive, with the snare drummer going up to the terrace to another instrument for his wild ad lib tattoo, then putting on a carried instrument and walking offstage to deliver his final blasts from there. (He didn't reappear for the remainder of the piece, but EPS brought him out for a special bow afterwards.) Despite this, EPS put strong emphasis on the long-breathed lyricism of the work, which the orchestra played with full-bodied warmth. This gave a wholeness to the piece that was as surprising - I'd never heard it played in quite this healing way before - as it was welcome. Many of these passages gave a hint of Shostakovich works as yet unwritten, or Ives in his most ecstatic spiritualist mood, but always there was the echo of the pre-war Nielsen, also sometimes hard to bring out here.

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