This week's subscription concert at the San Francisco Symphony was a rousing success, with the American premiere of "Symphonic Variations" by a living Brazilian composer, Almeida Prado, the San Francisco premiere of Bohuslav Martinu's 1943 concerto for two pianos, and the Dvorak symphonic warhorse, Symphony No. 9 "From the New World."
Prado's 15-minute "Symphonic Variations" from 2005 was written for a youth orchestra and dedicated to this week's guest conductor, the Brazilian Roberto Minczuk who currently splits his time between the Calgary Philharmonic and the Orquesta Sinfonica Brasiliera in Rio de Janeiro. The music was both conservative and gorgeous, sounding a bit like late Samuel Barber mixed in with Messiaen and seasoned with Brazilian percussion.
This piece was followed by Martinu's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in a sensational performance by the French sister team of Katia and Marielle Labeque (above).
Though I tend to agree most of the time with Joshua Kosman, the classical music critic in the San Francisco Chronicle, in the case of this music we couldn't be in further disagreement. Kosman, in a would-be bit of humorous bitchiness, writes:
"Martinu's score must have the highest ratio of notes to actual interest of any concerto in the repertoire, which is saying something. The two fast outer movements are unbroken stretches of clangorous display, with both pianists and the full orchestra playing practically nonstop; the lighter slow movement has some beautiful passages but nothing to dispel the surrounding black clouds."
Maybe Kosman was still digesting his dinner or was unhappy that there weren't any cookies in the press room, but for whatever reason he's absolutely wrong about the music. Sounding like a jazzed-up mixture of Bartok, Poulenc and Gershwin, the concerto was one of the most amusing pieces of music I've ever heard at the symphony, in a performance that was genuinely thrilling. It made me want to run to Amoeba Records and buy all things Martinu.
I had never heard the famous Dvorak symphony live before, though I'd heard it at least 3,000 times on the radio over the years. What I wasn't quite prepared for was how every one of the top tunes in the piece has been used for countless movies, television shows, ads, ice skating routines, and media I've probably forgotten.
It may be the most plundered piece of classical music in the repertory, and it was just about impossible to banish all those competing images from my brain. Thursday evening's performance was fairly sloppy, but the intent and feeling for the piece was all there, which is half the battle. Please bring Mr. Minczuk back, with one of Martinu's six symphonies while he's at it.