Sunday, November 11, 2018

Shostakovich, Borodin & Bartok at the SF Symphony

Last week the San Francisco Symphony presented a Russian/Hungarian musical program that was terrific, led by the young Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša above.

The concert started with another Soviet concerto masterpiece from the 1940s I had never heard before, Shostakovich's Violin Concerto #1, written for David Oistrakh who finally premiered it in the 1950s after Stalin had died. It is an amazing, fiendishly difficult work for the soloist, and could easily meander all over the place rather like the Symphony's performance of Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante three weeks ago. Instead, the conductor Jakub Hrůša kept it all together, making the long, meditative first movement poetic, the sardonic second movement dance, the slow third movement soar into longing beauty, and the finale party on down, all while supporting the violin soloist Karen Gomyo.

Gomyo was flat-out fabulous, muscular when she needed to be, gentle and searching at other times, and confidently virtuosic throughout so you didn't worry whether or not she was going to make it through the marathon work. Her solo cadenza between the third and fourth movements was astonishing, and it was a good thing Hrůša jumped to the finale without pause because the whole audience would have otherwise burst into applause.

The second half of the program promised a lot of bombast, but Hrůša and the orchestra gave fine, straightforward performances of Borodon's Symphony #2 and Bartok's Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin. The 1876 symphony by the chemist/composer Borodin was sort of schlock but fun, and the performance was guided by Hrůša's sincerity and obvious belief in the work. The slow third movement in particular was exquisite.

The Bartok was the Hungarian composer's 1919 version of a ballet shocker on the order of Rite of Spring, and it's still rather shocking. The performance was invigorating and filled with dynamic contrasts rather than hammering us over the ears. So please, SF Symphony honchos, bring back Jakub Hrůša and Ms. Gomyo while you're at it.

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