Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Brett Dean's "Carlo" at the San Francisco Symphony

Last week's guest conductor at the San Francisco Symphony was David Robertson (above), who usually leads the Saint Louis Symphony and London's BBC Symphony Orchestra.

I wasn't planning on attending the concerts because the program looked so conservative and stale, featuring Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony and Brahms' hour-long Second Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman as soloist. My friend Louisa, however, told me that the opening contemporary piece by the 47-year-old Australian composer Brett Dean for string orchestra and electronic sampler sounded really cool in rehearsal and that I needed to check it out.

She was right. It was a spooky, interesting mixture of late 16th century madrigals by Prince Carlo Gesualdo on tape with a chamber string orchestra and transformed bits of Gesualdo's music on an electronic sampler. The time traveling over five centuries could have been a gimmicky mess, but instead the delicate 25-minute piece cast a genuine spell, though not for many in the audience on Saturday who loudly coughed, chattered, and sighed their way through the thing. When a cell phone went off at one point, I decided the only way to enjoy the evening was to pretend that the extraneous sounds were coming from the electronic sampler.

The piece would probably work better in a smaller concert hall, and would be a perfect fit for the local New Century Chamber Orchestra. They should hire Peter Grunberg (above) to play the sampler while they're at it because much of the success of the performance involved his careful playing and use of dynamics.

The audience quieted down for the Haydn symphony, which was very jolly. I only made it through the long first movement of the Brahms Piano Concerto after intermission. Bronfman was banging the piano in an entertaining way, but it was only last May when the great Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes played this piece with Michael Tilson Thomas at his Brahms Festival. Andsnes' performance then was perfection, and there seemed no good reason to dislodge it from memory.

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