Monday, May 28, 2012

Finland Station at the San Francisco Symphony

Last week's San Francisco Symphony program was devoted to Finland and Russia, with Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska conducting Minea by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho, followed by music by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Minea was written in 2008 for the Minnesota Orchestra where Vanska is the Music Director, and was meant to evoke the city of Minneapolis, but if you were given twenty guesses about which American city this music was meant to portray, the chances are that Minneapolis would probably not be one of them. The twenty-minute work for large orchestra builds to a loud climax about halfway through, and then just gets louder for the next half. Though I liked the bongo drums that kept popping up, Minea mostly sounded like particularly bombastic film music.

The Prokofiev First Violin Concerto, with the composer at his most gentle and lyrical, came as a welcome relief. Hilary Hahn, in one of the most beautiful concert gowns ever seen at Davies Hall, gave an amazing performance of the upside-down concerto which starts off ethereal and dreamy in the opening movement, turns spiky in what is usually the slow movement, and then drifts off softly and beautifully in the third.

Hahn has been commissioning 27 contemporary composers to write new encore pieces for the violin, which she has begun playing around the world. On Thursday afternoon, she played a new piece by Nico Muhly, and on Friday evening it was Tina Davidson and J.S. Bach. On the Saturday evening we attended, it was the turn of composer Lera Auerbach, whose encore piece didn't make much of an impression.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony, which I heard for the first time when the Cleveland Symphony brought it as part of its West Coast tour. At the time, I wrote that the Clevelanders' playing of the long, slow first movement was beyond compare, but that they didn't seem to get the wild, rhythmic pulses of the two short final movements.

With the San Francisco Symphony, the opposite was true. They played the first movement very well indeed but it didn't quite take one to the holy places where Cleveland had journeyed. San Francisco's playing of the final movements, though, was everything that the Cleveland performance was not: rhythmically precise, brilliantly fun, surprising and sarcastic all at once. So between the two orchestras, I have now heard a perfect Shostakovich Sixth Symphony.

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