Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Young Bolsheviks at the San Francisco Symphony

Last Friday's San Francisco Symphony program was fun. It started off with a nicely conducted Mendelssohn overture, "Fingal's Cave," and continued with a frantic rendition of Franz Liszt's first piano concerto by the 21-year-old Alice Sara Ott above. My Hungarian friend Janos Gereben, who should know about these things, was not impressed, but he liked the choices made by the young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.

After intermission, a bit of Hungarian ultramodernism from 1979, "Grabstein fur Stephan," by the cult favorite Gyorgy Kurtag was played by a stripped down orchestra of not much more than a dozen players, with most of the music being created by an acoustic guitar playing a simple ascension of six notes. Nine minutes long, the music comes to a percussive climax midway, then descends back into gentle silence. Cindy (above), my companion for the evening, thought it sounded like the soundtrack for a Hitchcock movie, which could have meant that she thought it sounded like Bernard Herrmann or that she just found the music suspenseful and creepy.

In any case, we both enjoyed it, and it was a perfect palate cleanser after the clattering Liszt, before the main event of the evening, Shostakovich's 12th Symphony, subtitled "The Year 1917." It was written in 1961, not long after Shostakovich finally joined the Communist Party forty years late, and the symphony was actually commissioned by the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party to commemorate the Russian Revolution. When it was first played in Western Europe at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962, everyone was appalled at how this great composer had debased himself writing by cheap, patriotic claptrap. Since that time, the symphony has rarely been played outside of the Soviet Union, and in fact these were the first performances of the piece at the San Francisco Symphony.

I loved it. Yes, the symphony is often overly simplistic, designed to be happily appreciated by the masses, but Shostakovich is anything but simplistic as a composer, and you can hear it in every note, particularly in a performance as good as that conducted by Heras-Casado (above, with principal viola Jonathan Vinocour). The program notes warned that this piece was going to be insanely loud at times, but in truth the performance was perfectly calibrated, and never too much. After hearing the Shostakovich Eighth conducted by Vasily Petrenko last year, it feels like we have come into a golden age of Shostakovich conducting by youngsters who don't have any of the heavy political baggage surrounding the composer from decades past, and who can just appreciate his music as great music.

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