The San Francisco Symphony's long season is finally ending this week with an all-Berlioz program that was programmed at the last minute after a proposed Berlioz "Romeo and Juliet" was scrapped. This didn't augur well for the actual concert but in a happy surprise, it turned out to be an exquisite Friday night of music at Davies Symphony Hall thanks mostly to two young soloists.
After the "Roman Carnival Overture," which Berlioz cobbled together from his "Benvenuto Cellini" opera failure, the young mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang "Les Nuits d'Ete" ("Summer Nights"), which is four orchestrated poems by Gaultier about death and absent lovers bracketed by two lively poems about traveling off on adventures. Except for her deeply unflattering concert dress, Ms. Cooke was perfection, giving one of the most beautiful performances I've ever heard. She is also one of the few vocal soloists at Davies who somehow manages to fill the hall with sound when singing softly. Cooke was great in Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" earlier in the season, but this was a revelation.
After intermission, they played "Harold in Italy," which is a wonderful, weird symphony in four movements for viola and orchestra. It's not a traditional concerto since the viola soloist is representing "Harold" wandering dreamily around 19th century Italy while stumbling across religious pilgrims and bacchanalian orgies represented by the orchestra. The soloist was Jonathan Vinocour, who was appointed at the start of the season as the new Principal Viola for the orchestra. I'm still not convinced by Michael Tilson Thomas as a Berlioz conductor, but Vinocour like Sasha Cooke before him, understood and conveyed the eccentricity of the music perfectly.
The fact that he looks and moves like a geeky Princeton chemistry graduate, which he was in 2001, only added to the complete charm of the performance. He's a major addition to the orchestra.