Saturday, April 02, 2011

Wonderful Warhorses at the Symphony

This week's concerts at the San Francisco Symphony, with the 84-year-old Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and Sibelius' Second Symphony, are unexpectedly wonderful.

Joshua Kosman in the Chronicle gave the piano concerto a savage review after Wednesday's opening, "The soloist, Yundi [pictured above], demonstrated persuasively that he can play faster, louder and more explosively than the next guy - and with a fair degree of accuracy, too, as long as it doesn't matter whether the orchestra keeps up with him."

By Thursday afternoon's matinee, orchestra and soloist were working together well and the performance of the overplayed warhorse actually made the music sound fresh and new, which is a considerable achievement. The middle slow movement, in particular, was exquisite.

When Herbert Blomstedt was the music director of the San Francisco Symphony from 1985 to 1995, his measured approach to late 19th century masterworks, week in and week out, became extremely boring.

However, as Conductor Laureate for a couple of weeks every year, Blomstedt (pictured above and below) is a welcome breath of fresh air and produces a sound with this orchestra that is as good as it gets. He divided the first and second violins onto separate sides of the stage with the cellos, basses and violas between them, and it made a huge difference in the richness of the sound.

The long, stirring Sibelius second symphony with all its famous tunes, flirted with being too slow but Blomstedt managed to make the tempos work perfectly, building to an emotional, overwhelming climax. In a contest between recent Bay Area appearances by geriatric, over-80 conductors, Blomstedt easily wins over Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel, and somehow he's looking younger than he did twenty years ago.

There's a final performance tonight (Saturday) and I can't recommend it highly enough.

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