Arts & Culture » Music

Symphonic spring

by Philip Campbell

LEFT: Violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco, courtesy Sony Music Entertainment  RIGHT: Christian Reif, Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. Photo: Terrence McCarthy
LEFT: Violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco, courtesy Sony Music Entertainment RIGHT: Christian Reif, Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. Photo: Terrence McCarthy  

If springtime hasn't been apparent in the weather lately, at least music-lovers have been able to warm themselves indoors. Concerts with the San Francisco Symphony and SFS Youth Orchestra and the New Century Chamber Orchestra proved the classics still bloom perennially in May.

Most recently, guest conductor David Robertson leapt to the podium at Davies Symphony Hall for an evening that featured a US premiere of the concert version of Australian composer Brett Dean's "Engelsflugel" ("Wings of Angels"), a romp through Haydn's Symphony No. 102, and a stunning performance by Kirill Gerstein of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1.

Currently in his farewell season as Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and fifth season as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, California native David Robertson still found time to return to DSH for another guest shot. More animated than I recall, Robertson charmingly mugged his way through a Haydn Symphony and conducted by facial expression (and strong physical gestures) Gerstein's star turn.

When a number of listeners applauded after the first movement of the Haydn No. 102, the conductor turned and bowed, adding, with a smile, "We have three encores for you." His wit and musical understanding have always been assets, and I'm sucker for "big band" sunny-side-up Haydn anyway. The conductor can playfully interact with the orchestra and audience, and Robertson didn't upstage the composer. He made some new friends, too.

He also didn't detract in the Brahms Concerto. Gerstein unleashed power of his own in a rendition that still showed a lyrical side. The outer movements framed the gorgeous central Adagio with thrilling sonority. Gerstein articulated with ease, making sense of even the densest passages.

Beloved violinist Itzhak Perlman is increasingly known for his conducting abilities, a talent he has exhibited with the SFS before. His most recent appearance shared performing duties with SFS Principal Oboe Eugene Izotov. His conducting of works by Elgar and Tchaikovsky was less satisfying.

Izotov paired with the famous fiddler for a lively J.S. Bach Concerto in C minor for Oboe and Violin. They made a happy sound together, and the packed house gave them the first standing ovation of several. It is kind of safe to predict favorable response to Perlman regardless of results. His legendary career and reputation as world-class mensch guarantee warm reception.

Based on past appreciation, it proved easier praising the strong SFS string-playing in Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings than to wonder if the musicians were simply anticipating Perlman's wishes. His imprecise lead was visible and a bit surprising.

The interaction between seasoned professionals is always apparent at DSH, so Edward Elgar's "Enigma" Variations (1899), which filled the second half of the show, also achieved much without clear direction. The fans, including myself, were more than willing to applaud Perlman's shorthand. At this point in his celebrated life, he deserves a standing O for cumulative achievement.

German conductor Christian Reif joined the SFS as Resident Conductor and Wattis Foundation Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) in 2016. He made his debut with the SFS in 2015, and recently finished a stint as Conducting Fellow with the New World Symphony in Miami, also serving as cover for NWS music director Michael Tilson Thomas. That's a mouthful of credits for such a young conductor, but Reif is proving good on his promise, and MTT is getting a fine return on his mentoring.

A recent matinee with the SFSYO showed the maestro-in-the-making has a similarly positive influence on his own young charges. The ambitious program began with selections by Faure and Gyorgy Ligeti, but a muscular rendition of Stravinsky's difficult "The Rite of Spring" set the seal on the partnership between conductor and orchestra. One can't help but beam with pride at all the youthful energy onstage. It is gratifying to note the wonderful accomplishments of SFSYO musicians as they begin their careers. Audiences for classical music must be grown as well. The exciting Stravinsky performance showed the new performers are ready for their part of the challenge.

Enjoying a loyal and expanding audience of its own, New Century Chamber Orchestra concluded its 2017-18 season at the Herbst Theatre with the West Coast Premiere of Philip Glass' Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring Simone Dinnerstein. Appearing as soloist, Dinnerstein performed the softly hypnotic work written with her in mind, along with J.S. Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 7 in G minor.

Indianapolis Symphony concertmaster Zachary DePue was guest Concertmaster in a concert that also featured works by Purcell and Francesco Geminiani. Contemporary composer Bruce David Dessner's evocative and engaging "Aheym" rounded a thoroughly satisfying program.

You can catch Dinnerstein performing the instantly likeable Glass Concerto on YouTube for confirmation of her worthiness of the composer's trust. She was a fine soloist with NCCO; blending perfectly with the conductorless crew. Together, they created a quietly grand season finale.

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