Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Baltic Sea in Davies Hall

Two different concerts at Davies Symphony Hall last weekend were infused with composers and musicians from the Baltic Sea. (Did you know that Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and St. Petersburg are on the same latitude and are essentially Baltic Sea neighbors? Neither did I.)

Saturday evening the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä above led the San Francisco Symphony in an eclectic program of Sibelius, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. The concert started with a Technicolor tone poem, Night Ride and Sunset, from early in Sibelius' career, and finished with his late period Symphony No. 6. According to an interview with Vanska by Jeff Kaliss at SFCV, the programmers at the SF Symphony requested the latter since it had not been played at Davies for over 20 years. Vänskä described what the strange, fragmentary symphony sounds like to him:
"The music reminds me of clouds, which out there we can see very well; in a way, they’re very concrete, but we cannot touch them. They are going away with the wind, and we don’t have a real connection. There are many people who believe they are always seeing frozen lakes and snow and forests in Sibelius’ music, and I like to be polite and say, “That’s good to hear.”

Soon after writing this symphony, Sibelius went silent for thirty years until his death in 1957 at age 92. He had lost his muse, rather like Rachmaninoff after he emigrated from Russia to the United States after the Communist Revolution. Rachmaninoff only published six works from 1918 to his death from melanoma in 1943, and one of them is the popular blockbuster, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which was performed at Davies by the latest virtuosic wunderkind, the 22-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov (above right). I thought the performance was a bit chaotic, with the orchestra going in one direction and Trifonov another, but it certainly wasn't boring. My concert companion Charlie Lichtman, who actually knows something about playing the piano, wrote: "Brilliant rendition of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini last night. Trifonov nearly tore the ivory off the keys, demonstrating passion and artistry in his sublime and technically 'in the zone' performance. Hunched over the piano like the Peanuts character Schroeder, he wowed the audience, got an extended standing 'o', and proceeded to dazzle again with an encore (from The Firebird).

The piano fantasia on Stravinsky's Firebird ballet was completely sensational, and thoroughly upstaged a performance by the orchestra's wind and brass sections of the same composer's 1920 Symphonies of Wind Instruments, with its ten minutes of Debussy style austerity.

The following evening, on Super Bowl Blowout Sunday, there was a performance by Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica. Kremer is a legendary, 66-year-old Latvian violinist who left Russia for Germany in 1980, before perestroika. In 1996, he formed a young persons' chamber orchestra consisting of some of the best string players from the small, newly independent Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuiania. They tour the world and record extensively, concentrating mostly on 20th century and contemporary music.

Their program of Weinberg, Shostakovich and Britten sounded fascinating on paper, although Shostakovich's Anti-formalist Gallery was canceled because of the sudden death of the young wife of the bass soloist Alexei Mochalof. This made for some last-minute shuffling and the concert started with an orchestration of Shostakovich's Violin Sonata with Kremer as soloist in an exquisite performance by the entire ensemble. They followed with Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which is a piece I thought I knew but obviously didn't, since I mistook it for Weinberg's Symphony No. 10. Never having heard any of Weinberg's music, I was amazed at how sophisticated and lively it sounded until Janos Gereben clued me in to my mistake.

Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) was from a Polish Jewish family that mostly perished in the concentration camps during World War Two. He fled Warsaw for the Soviet Union in 1939 and eventually became a friend and disciple of Shostakovich in Moscow. The second half of the concert started with his Concertino for Violin and Strings, with Kremer above as soloist again, and the performance was so rich and perfectly satisfying that we left before the Symphony No. 10 began, feeling musically stuffed. Reading between the lines of Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman's review, we probably made the right decision.

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