Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Bartok and Berlioz at the SF Symphony

Last week's SF Symphony program featured two eccentric masterpieces, Bartok's Second Piano Concerto from 1931 and Berlioz's first symphony, the 1832 Symphonie Fantastique. The Bartok soloist was Jeremy Denk above, who did a magnificent job in one of the most difficult pieces of piano music in the repertory. The concerto bounces back and forth between quick, percussive, astringent melodies and strange, delicate, moody night music, with Denk making sense of the disparate elements which is not always the case. For an encore he played a delicate, simple Mozart adagio which was spellbinding, partly because Denk has such an unusual affinity for the composer's music. I discovered Denk at a 2007 Summer in the City pops concert, where he and the young conductor James Gaffigan created totally unexpected Mozartean magic, and have been following him ever since. It's nice to report that he can also play Bartok at his most fiendish with aplomb.

The Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique after intermission did not make me as happy. The wildly bizarre early 19th century symphony that smashed open the doors of Romanticism was written by a lovesick composer in his 20s who sets the second half of the hour-long piece in a bad trip opium nightmare, marching with a famous earworm to the gallows before falling into the middle of a witches' sabbath. The orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas sounded great, like a sleek machine, with all imperfections smoothed out, but I wanted the feeling of being inside the crazy opium visions of the young Berlioz. This was a minority opinion, by the way, since my friend Patrick enjoyed himself as did Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle and a gentleman across the aisle from me at Davies Hall whose entire body was rocking with the music in an amusingly spastic, slightly off-the-beat way.

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