Thursday, October 13, 2011
Bell and Petrenko and Elgar
Last week's San Francisco Symphony concert was highlighted by the British composer Edward Elgar's First Symphony from 1908, in a beautiful, committed performance led by the young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko. (The sculpture in front of Davies Hall above is by another great British artist from a poor family, Henry Moore, who was ten years old when the First Symphony premiered.)
The concerts were being promoted as a showcase for the American violinist Joshua Bell, but the short Meditation by Tchaikovsky and the 1904 Violin Concerto by Glazunov both sounded like elevator music.
I asked my music lover friend Jack Murray in Santa Barbara if he was a fan of Joshua Bell, and he replied, "I would be if he played anything I wanted to listen to, but he usually comes through town playing something like the Mendelshohn Violin Concerto. And Glazunov? We used to have a classical music radio station down here that I called All-Glazunov-All-The-Time. It put you into a coma."
The 35-year-old Vasily Petrenko (above, conducting the Shostakovich Eighth with the San Francisco Symphony last year) managed to make the concert special, with an opening "Festival Overture" from 1954 by Shostakovich that reveled in the bombastic paean to the October Revolution. It was as fun and well performed as when the legendary Mstislav Rostropovich conducted it with the Symphony in 2006, which is saying something.
Elgar's ambitious, hour-long First Symphony after intermission was a revelation, sounding as if the composer of "Pomp and Circumstance" was taking Mahler as his model. The long, twisty first movement, the grotesque scherzo, the heavenly adagio, and the crazy, semi-resolved final movement all were reminiscent of the Viennese Gustav while never sounding like anything other than the very British Elgar. The final Sunday matinee performance was sensational and made me look forward to hearing the piece again.