Sunday, November 20, 2016

SF Symphony Youth Orchestra Triumph

My friend Janos Gereben has been raving about the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra for decades, but last Sunday afternoon's 35th Season opener was my first visit. Reluctance at attending an SFYSO concert always had more to do with concerns about the family audiences than faith in the performers, but last Sunday the phone video cameras were mostly put away and there weren't too many impatient younger siblings. (Note to parents: Just take the noisy wee ones out to the lobby if necessary and let the rest of the audience appreciate the high quality music.) Anyway, I'm happy to report that the 100+ instrumentalists ranging in age from 12 to 21 turned out to be even better than heralded. In a blind radio listening, they would be indistinguishable from any top-notch professional adult orchestra in the world.

What drew me to the concert was the debut of the organization's new music director, 26-year-old Bavarian conductor Christian Reif and an unusually challenging program for performers and audience alike of Henze, Sibelius and Shostakovich. Reif has been working with the New World Symphony in Miami for the last two years under Michael Tilson Thomas, and also working with the Tanglewood Music Festival. He addressed the audience at the top of the concert with, "You're probably wondering who in the heck composer Hans Werner Henze might be." Reif explained a bit about Henze and his music and the story of the 1966 one-act opera The Bassarids. It has an English libretto by W.H. Auden taken from Euripedes' The Bacchae, where the young King of Thebes is torn apart during Dionysian orgies by a band of intoxicated revelers that includes his mother and sister.

Reif didn't go into the composer's bio very deeply, which ranged from Hitler Youth thanks to a Nazi schoolteacher father to a post-war German ballet company conductor to a non-doctrinaire, Italian expatriate composer with a huge range of ballets, operas and symphonies to his credit before his death in 2012. He was also openly gay, and a non-serialist composer in the 1950s and 1960s when that was the established musical flavor of the modernist moment. Though his music may not be atonal, much of it is still elaborately complex and difficult for performers and audience. This 2004 suite for an outrageously large orchestra, expanded from The Bassarids, whetted my appetite and it would be good to hear more of it in the United States. (Click here for a wonderful appreciation of his music from The Guardian after Henze's death.) The performance by the SFS Youth Orchestra was impeccable, precisely overwrought and delicate in equal measures.

The Sibelius Violin Concerto wasn't quite as successful. The orchestral reading was wonderful, but the originally scheduled soloist had to withdraw, and former Youth Orchestra concertmaster Alexi Kenney was recruited to take his place. Kenney managed to hit all the notes, but he seemed to be missing the musical line in between.

My concert companion James Parr disagreed, and thought Kenney did a fabulous job, but he didn't have the sound and musicianship of violinist Ray Chen ringing in his ears from the previous evening like I did.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to play Shostakovich's 1939 Sixth Symphony, which is a weirdly proportioned 30-minute piece which starts with a long, meandering first movement Largo that according to the brilliant Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko is a mixture of Mahler and Mussorgsky. It keeps heading towards a climax and then dribbles off into soft flute trills and sad spaces. The final two movements are a short, percussive, wild Allegro and Presto.

According to Petrenko, "the third movement Presto is incredibly demanding – perhaps he was testing how far he could go back to the language of the Fourth Symphony at that point." Reif and his orchestra's account of the first movement wasn't very convincing (neither was the adult SF Symphony's rendition back in 2012), but the final two movements, including the incredibly demanding Presto, were smashingly well-played. I would happily listen to this orchestra play anything and wish the best for their new Music Director.

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