Thursday, February 05, 2009

Stephen Hough and David Robertson at the Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony's program this week is a very hearty stew, with the first half devoted to Tchaikovsky's rarely heard Second Piano Concerto played in spectacular fashion by the 47-year-old British/Australian pianist Stephen Hough (above left) and conducted by David Robertson (above right), who is currently music director of the Saint Louis Symphony.

The program notes by Michael Steinberg start with, "I would guess that nine out of ten people at this concert are hearing Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto for the first time," and Steinberg was probably right. Charlie and Cedric (above) had never heard the huge, 50-minute piece before and neither had I, which just made the performance that much more exciting.

The long first movement was highlighted by some of the most virtuosic playing I've ever seen by a pianist. Hough's hands were moving so fast at certain points that they looked photographically blurred. From what I could hear and see on his amusing website (click here), he fully deserves his 2001 MacArthur Fellowship for "genius." The man is not only one of the greatest pianists in the world but he composes music, writes essays, poetry, scholarly books, and even an impassioned defense of being an openly gay Catholic.

The second half consisted of Sibelius' first tone poem, "En Saga," in a really marvelous performance by the orchestra. It sounded bizarrely modern at times, and you could easily make out what the contemporary composer John Adams has (admittedly) lifted from Sibelius over the years. This was followed by Scriabin's 1908 "The Poem of Ecstasy," which was fun but entirely too much after the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. We left feeling thrilled but a bit overstuffed.

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