Friday, January 28, 2011

Old Testament Kiddie Concert at the Symphony

This week's San Francisco Symphony concerts are bookended by a couple of pieces that often show up on classical concerts for kids, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," by Paul Dukas and Prokofiev's "Classical" First Symphony. They were conducted by Saint Louis Symphony Music Director David Robertson (above left) and played quite beautifully.

After the 1897 "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," which was taken from a Goethe poem of all things and later used in Disney's "Fantasia" featuring Mickey Mouse, they played Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto with the Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos (above) as soloist. The 1935 concerto is a bit of an odd duck, with the first two movements straining for conventional lyricism like the "Romeo and Juliet" ballet, while the last movement sounds like early, spikey, bad-boy Prokofiev. I like both sides of the composer, but in this performance nothing seemed to mesh very well, and I couldn't tell if it was the performers or the piece itself which I had never heard before.

After the intermission, there was a world premiere by Avner Dorman (above), a young Israeli-born, Los Angeles-based composer who is the flavor of the moment, receiving commissions from orchestras all over the world these days.

The piece was a short, continuous five-movement tone poem called "Uriah: The Man The King Wanted Dead" about King David's general who was left to die on the battlefield by his own troops on the orders of David, so the latter could marry Uriah's beautiful wife Bathsheba. I have a Catholic friend who refers to the god of the Old Testament as "that psychopathic serial killer," and this bible tale is yet another cautionary story of leaders behaving badly.

Unfortunately, the music sounded awfully generic, with "Andante Indignato" being a loud expression of An Angry God; "Lento in the Desert" a soft, disposable reverie; "Presto barbaro" an amusingly exciting war scene proving that the battles are usually the most interesting sections of anti-war pieces; "The Song of the Angels" which was over almost before it began; and an "Epilogue" which Dorman explained was his reaction to the story (it didn't seem to make him happy). As Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out this morning, this brand new piece of music was upstaged in every regard by "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" earlier in the evening.

Though it's hideously overplayed on classical radio music stations, I don't think I've ever heard Prokofiev's First Symphony live before, and it was a treat. The elderly lady sitting in front of us was bobbing so energetically to its rhythms that I thought she might actually get up and dance.

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