together at the hall
by Philip Campbell
San Francisco Symphony Season 101 is clipping right along, and the last two weeks have been filled with many notable highlights. Subscription concerts have included the local premiere of a commissioned work by a Bay Area native, a transcendent performance of a 20th century masterpiece, and the welcome return to Davies Symphony Hall of a talented young guest conductor.
Samuel Carl Adams is the son of composer John Adams and photographer Deborah O'Grady (who met while working with the SFS). Born in San Francisco and growing up in Berkeley, young Samuel now resides in Brooklyn, NY. His pedigree has certainly guided his path, but the West Coast premiere of his 2012 composition Drift and Providence, co-commissioned by the SFS and New World Symphony in Miami, proves he is ready to speak with his own voice.
MTT premiered the evocatively titled score in Miami, and will again lead the orchestra in performances at Carnegie Hall in March. As 20 minutes of pensive reflection with interesting moments of orchestral and computer-enhanced sounds, Drift and Providence should find its way onto many concert programs in the future.
Like his famous dad, Samuel would seem to have an extra talent for titling his own work. In five continuous sections, Drift travels through Embarcadero – Drift I – Divisadero – Drift II – and the concluding movement, Providence. Locals will know where both the place and the street figure physically in San Francisco, but Adams is actually playing on their meaning in Spanish. Embarcadero is a wharf, and Divisadero is a high place with a view that may also be a place of rest during an excursion.
There is easily audible play between the sounds of the natural and the man-made, woods and metals, and even the contrasting pace of the East and West Coasts. The composer performed an unnotated electronic part from a laptop computer that was subtle to the point of virtually going unnoticed, although he was purportedly enhancing amplified frequencies from the percussion section.
In keeping with his titles, Adams brings listeners on a journey that emerges from a foggy beginning with an attention-grabbing whoosh, and continues with deceptive languor through vignettes of sound, silence, and brief tunes that culminate in Providence (literally, wisdom or far-sightedness, not Rhode Island). I'm not sure if Providence convincingly achieves what the composer deems "a summation," but the increased and sustained volume signals a conclusion that also remains by design "a little bit unclear, a little ambiguous."
Looking with pride and admiration from their balcony seats, Mom and Pop Adams saw their talented son receive a hearty ovation from both audience and orchestra. It may not have been as stunning a splash as Big Daddy made years ago, but clearly we were in on the start of another big career. And by the way, you would never guess by the sound of it that Drift and Providence was written by John Adams' kid.
After intermission came an absolutely wonderful performance of the Mahler Symphony No. 5. We can expect that MTT has this score and composer well within his grasp by now, but this was an exceptionally meaningful and considered rendition, and it was also marked by some of the best playing I have ever heard from the orchestra – and that is saying quite a lot. When we are writing our season wrap in 2013, there will be several gold stars next to a Mahler presentation that was not only exquisitely beautiful, but deeply moving. Sometimes everything comes together in a single performance, and here was a night that earned an extended standing ovation.
(Photo: Courtesy SFS)
Last week, Vasily Petrenko (you know, the Russian conductor who looks a little like Ryan Gosling) returned to DSH for a third visit that did his admirable reputation no favors with me, but seemed to raise the temperature of most everyone else in attendance.
Starting with Arvo Part's brief and once-ubiquitous Fratres for Strings and Percussion (1977), Petrenko renewed our faith in his ability to work with the orchestra. He really got another boost proving he can also support a soloist sympathetically. French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet made his SFS debut with Bartok's scrumptious Piano Concerto No. 3, and the partnership was terrific.
Whenever I hear one of Bartok's wonderful concertos for piano (or violin, for that matter), I can't help but wonder why more soloists don't attempt them. The Third Piano Concerto has it all for a 20th-century piece: lots of snazzy tunes, a whiff of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and even George Gershwin. Bavouzet had a blast tearing through the glittering work, and he grabbed the audience with his energy and delightful interpretation. Petrenko was also in sync, and the performance sent us out to intermission with big smiles on our faces.
We returned to two of Respighi's most famous tone poems or soundtracks or whatever: Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. It is hard to approach these immensely popular works without betraying a little musical snobbism, and even if I think they are not unlike the paintings of Thomas Kinkade in their kitschy and obvious appeal, there are an awful lot of listeners who think they are just what classical music should be.
If a profusion of pleasant melody and admittedly gorgeous orchestration is what those listeners mean, then I can agree Respighi hits the mark. I personally draw the line at canned birdsong. Still, if you're going to go there, it might as well be with Petrenko, and the happy crowd surrounding me reacted as if they simply couldn't hear enough. Who am I to go around popping balloons?