Friday, May 12, 2023

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

This was the most fractured concert I've attended in quite a while.

It was intended to feature Hilary Hahn playing the Brahms Violin Concerto. But she called in sick a couple days ago, and for a substitute they turned up not another violinist, but a young Canadian pianist named Bruce Liu, who'd undertake Beethoven's Third Concerto. Not my favorite Beethoven concerto by any means, but tolerable, so I'd still go.

Liu turned out to be a technically dazzling pianist, with a light and perky way of draping his fluid note-spinning across the keyboard. He has a particularly supernal way with trills. And then he had the chutzpah to show off even further with Liszt's La Campanella for an encore. But whether his overall shaping of the concerto had depth and maturity seemed to me more doubtful. I'd like to hear Liu in a more profound work. He's got a big hat, but are there any cattle?

The conductor was Rafael Payare, who's been music director in San Diego for several years now, so it's about time he showed up here for a guest appearance. Like Gustavo Dudamel (and, for that matter, José Luis Gómez of Tucson, whom I heard in San José last week), Payare is a product of El Sistema in Venezuela. Though he's 43, actually a year older than Dudamel, he still wears the huge mop of dark curly hair that Dudamel had when he was starting out at 26.

For an opener, Payare offered us Darker America, a tone poem by William Grant Still depicting the conflict between the sorrow and the hope of Black folk. It's an early piece from 1925, but it sounded to me more than Still's later work to be in the vein of the American nationalist style that didn't become dominant until subsequent decades. Was Still one of the unacknowledged founders of that style? It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest.

I must have been really eager to hear Hahn's Brahms, as I didn't dump this concert from my series because the second half was Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. I heard this in concert around 1972, and swore that I'd never subject myself to sitting through that thing again.

So I didn't. I left at intermission and went home.

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