Thursday, April 23, 2015

Petrenko Conducts the Shostakovich 12th Symphony

The 39-year-old Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko is conducting the San Francisco Symphony in two performances this week of the Shostakovich 12th Symphony, The Year 1917. I heard it this afternoon at a matinee, and if you can possibly get to Friday evening's concert, do so. It is amazing musicmaking, and the San Francisco Symphony does not sound like this under any other conductor, swinging from the loudest fortissimos to the softest pianissimos during hairpin transitions that seem almost impossible for such a large orchestra. All the sections played magnificently, but the percussion led by new principal Jacob Nissly deserve special mention for their wildly shifting rhythms in this loud, militaristic celebration of the Russian Revolution.

Five years ago I heard Petrenko conduct the San Francisco Symphony in Shostakovich's similarly bombastic Eighth Symphony, and the performance was a revelation (click here). Petrenko has just completed recording a Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Royal Liverpool Symphonic Orchestra where he is Chief Conductor. Though tempted to buy it, in truth there is no way recorded sound can compete with the soft and loud dynamics Petrenko manages to conjure from a live orchestra.

I missed the first half of the program, which had Barber's School for Scandal Overture and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2 played by Sa Chen (above right, signing CDs with Petrenko). According to Vivian in front of me, who said the performance "had changed her life," and the ladies seated on either side, it was a magnificent rendition of the concerto, but I am glad to have saved my energy for the Shostakovich.

The Symphony #12 was received rapturously in the Soviet Union on its 1961 premiere, but in the West it was considered bald, trashy musical propaganda for the Soviet Revolution. Now that the Cold War is an historic relic, the music can start to stand on its own without a program, and Shostakovich was above all a great, supremely gifted composer. The first movement, Revolutionary Petrograd, was insanely exciting in this afternoon's performance, giving way without pause to the longest movement, The Rising, with the composer at his softest and most meditative. The final two movements, Aurora and Dawn of Humanity, could sound like schlock in the wrong hands but Petrenko and the SF Symphony played it so superbly that you didn't doubt the stirring music for a second.

No comments: