The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony both gave concerts in Davies Hall this week. I went to one performance of each, fully expecting the legendary Chicago troupe to eclipse our local band, but in a delightful surprise, the home team won resoundingly.
Part of the reason was simple repertory. The touring Chicago Symphony, under new music director Ricardo Muti, played the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger's short 1924 paean to the locomotive, Pacific 231, and followed it up with a premiere by the young Bay Area-based composer Mason Bates called Alternative Energy that was a mixture of recorded techno music booming out of large speakers and live orchestra. I enjoyed Bates's similar The B-Sides, premiered three years ago by the San Francisco Symphony, but Alternative Energy has a global warming, end-of-the-world scenario attached to it that vaulted the score into silly and pretentious rather than just loud and banal. The second half of the concert was Cesar Franck's lone, insipid Symphony in D Minor, performed exquisitely, which made one wish they were playing something more interesting.
Later in the week, as part of its centenary celebrations, the San Francisco Symphony invited former 1970s-1980s music director Edo de Waart (above) to conduct for the first time in a couple of decades. He led a high Romantic program of a lush 1914 Schreker opera overture (Die Gezeichneten), Rachmaninoff's late, unpopular Fourth Piano Concerto, and another French symphonic warhorse, the Organ Symphony #3 by Saint-Saens. On paper, this program looked like it could be either terrible or interesting, and it's a treat to report that the entire concert was thrilling and beautiful.
After the Korngold-sounding overture, the young Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski (above, with de Waart) was soloist for the Rachmaninoff Fourth Piano Concerto, which doesn't have the catchy, famous tunes of numbers two and three, but in this performance it was consistently absorbing.
Though Trpceski is visually no matinee idol, looking a bit like a young Mel Brooks at the piano, his obvious joy in playing and sheer musicianship is delightful to witness. He played the Grieg Piano Concerto in San Francisco a couple of years ago, turning that overplayed warhorse into something special, and he accomplished something similar this weekend with the Rachmaninoff.
After a huge ovation, Trpceski returned with a charming encore. Joshua Kosman in the Chronicle describes it in his glowing review of the concert:
"Instead of moving into the spotlight alone with a bit of Chopin or Bach, the way pianists usually do in these situations, Trpceski enlisted concertmaster Alexander Barantschik [above right] to join him for the American premiere of "Dancing Fantasy," a jaunty, rhythmically beguiling accordion ditty by Koco Petrovski arranged for the occasion by Damir Imeri. The joyful energy of the music - and the astonishing fact that Barantschik had worked it up on short order just in case it was called for - only contributed to the high spirits..."
Conductor de Waart above, who is looking more like Elmer Fudd with every passing year, watched the encore from the side of the stage while sitting on the organ bench. After intermission, he conducted another overplayed warhorse, the Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3, and demonstrated that he's only gotten better with age as a conductor. It was a great performance, highlighted by brass players that sounded superior to the famed Chicago Symphony's brass section earlier in the week. I hope de Waart is invited back soon.