Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Musical Week 2: SF Symphony Plays the Sibelius Fifth

Susanna Mälkki started her second week of guest conducting the San Francisco Symphony last Thursday in a program that contained highs and lows. The curtain raiser was the 1998 Alma III: Soma, a ten minute piece for huge orchestra by the contemporary Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu which was marvelous. In the program notes, Jeanette Yu mentions that "since the 1980s, Tiensuu has refrained from providing program notes and does not conduct interviews...[An admirer relates that] Tiensuu is trying to grant his audience the full joy and responsibility of reception." Let's just say that the music was bright, sparkling and delicate at the same time, sounding a bit like an aural version of the aurora borealis.

This was followed by Simon Trpceski playing Chopin's 1830 Piano Concerto #1, which the Polish composer wrote when he was 20 years old before his exile in France. In the program notes by James Keller, he points out that "received opinion" early in the 20th century was that this was "not Chopin at his very best," and then makes a spirited defense of the concerto. Since I have nothing but admiration for Chopin's piano music, I'm sorry to agree with received opinion, but this concerto is a huge bore, and its 40 minutes duration felt like four hours.

After intermission Mälkki conducted Sibelius' 1919 Fifth Symphony in a perfect performance. After listening obsesively as a teenager to a Bernstein recording of the symphony, I have heard the piece played live four or five times conducted by everyone from a young Simon Rattle to an old Semyon Bychkov, and they all managed to get it wrong. The symphony needs to be be filled with tension from beginning to end, and many conductors get mired in the beautiful byways rather than letting the music propel itself. Mälkki and the San Francisco Symphony sounded even better than that old Bernstein recording, and it was a complete joy to hear the piece live, played right, at last.

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