Thursday, October 16, 2014

London Musical Gods Descend on San Francisco

The London cellist Steven Isserlis played two concertos with the local, original-instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra last week at the SFJAZZ Center, and his performance was soulful and enchanting. The program had the order switched for the two 18th century cello concertos by CPE Bach and Boccherini, which Isserlis announced to the audience after intermission, explaining in a deadpan voice that we were the victims of a "ghastly hoax." He then explained how the Bach was forward-looking music for its time, "modern music," while the Boccherini was old-fashioned in its use of traditional forms but nonetheless "perfect and heavenly."

Sandwiching his performances were two middle-period Haydn symphonies, #52 and #67. Haydn wrote close to 110 of them, mostly for his live-in job at the Esterhazy estate in Hungary, and they are witty, sane and charming pieces but sometimes hard to bring off in modern concerts where they can easily become dull. The first movement of #57 was conducted by Music Director Nicholas McGegan with verve and a perfect touch, but in the slow second movement he decided to seriously stretch out the tempos, and the piece simply expired and never recovered, not even in the sprightly final movement.

The orchestra was excellent accompanying Isserlis in the Bach and Boccherini, and there was even a hint of jazziness in some of the offbeat rhythms the cellist adopted which fit the music and the location. Isserlis performs as a soloist, in chamber music, with original instrument ensembles and full, modern orchestras in everything from Baroque music to contemporary pieces. This is the second time I have seen him perform and would gladly attend anything in which he's involved. He's a great musician.

Also a supremely great musician is the conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who is touring with the London Philharmonic Orchestra where he has been principal conductor for the last seven years. This year is the last in that particular relationship which is too bad because they are sensational together. The strings, in particular, were so full and rich that they sounded as if we were in Carnegie Hall rather than Davies Hall.

Jurowski was born in Russia, moved with his professional musician family to Germany in 1990, and currently lives with his own family in Berlin, but he's an honorary Londoner because his major career so far has been out of that city, including a stint as the Music Director of Glyndebourne Opera. I've heard him three times now, with three different orchestras, starting with the San Francisco Symphony, his debut with the New York Philharmonic earlier this year, and now this appearance with his own orchestra. He's my new favorite conductor in the world. Even the overplayed Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was interesting in the orchestra, although the boorish, pounding style of piano soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet made me want to run out of the hall.

The Monday evening concert started with a curtainraiser commissioned by the orchestra in 2002, Magnus Lindberg's Chorale, an intentionally dense, beautiful and stirring work for a huge orchestra. After intermission, that same huge orchestra played Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony from 1943, written in the darkest Russian hours of World War Two. The strange hour-long piece alternates between moody string meditations to full-out, cacophonous marches written for an orchestra so loud as to cause hearing loss, which in this case was actually worth it. The performance was assured, powerful, and mysterious. I can't wait to see what Jurowski does next.

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