Monday, October 28, 2013

Eastern Europe at the SF Symphony

Reincarnation must be true. It's the only logical explanation for my instinctive emotional reaction to Eastern European and Russian music after a childhood on Southern California beaches with nary a Bohemian or Cossack in sight. Last week Edwin Outwater above came into town as a guest conductor with an all Eastern Euro program, starting with the Romanian Gyorgy Ligeti's 1951 essay in ethnomusicality, the Concert Romanesc. It was one of the best concert openers imaginable, tuneful, wildly rhythmic and with enough weird Ligeti moments that you could hear why the Hungarian cultural authorities banned it from performance for decades. The irony is that Ligeti's music soon became much wilder and stranger. In part due to Stanley Kubrick, who used the composer as his sonic muse for the second half of his film career, Ligeti stays in the worldwide performing orbit. Plus, his compositions are sounding more marvelous with each passing year.

Edwin Outwater is also a Southern California boy who went to Harvard, was the Resident Assistant Conductor at the San Francisco Symphony from 2001 to 2006, and is currently the Music Director of the Kitchener/Waterloo Symphony in Canada. This concert reminded me of what I thought listening to him back in his San Francisco apprenticeship years, which was that his programs were consistently fascinating music but the actual concerts always seemed to bite off more than he could chew. His conducting on Friday of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, with Simon Trpceski as an often overpowered soloist, sounded like Rachmaninoff at his most lugubrious, which is all wrong. Transparency, biting rhythms, and sudden, exquisite blossoms of lyricism are at the heart of Sergei P, and this performance communicated none of those qualities.

After a sweet, dull, unidiomatic rendition of three Dvorak Legends, there was a loud, exciting performance of the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski's 1954 Concerto for Orchestra. This was difficult, challenging music for both orchestra and audience, and it was a triumph. Lutoslawski conducted the San Francisco Symphony three times in his own compositions from 1986 to 1993, and I remember going to at least two of those concerts. His work struck me as immeasurably strange back then, but it was a major treat to watch a composer conduct their own pieces, particularly when they were so very different. It is good to hear that his music is aging as well as Ligeti's.

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