Arts & Culture » Music

SFS: Yesterday, today & tomorrow

by Philip Campbell

The Labeque Sisters, Katia and Marielle, were part of a San Francisco Symphony program conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Photo: Umberto Nicoletti/San Francisco Symphony
The Labeque Sisters, Katia and Marielle, were part of a San Francisco Symphony program conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Photo: Umberto Nicoletti/San Francisco Symphony  

The San Francisco Symphony is currently performing a final week of season concerts featuring a guest conductor and instrumental soloist. Susanna Malkki, named 2017 Conductor of the Year by Musical America Worldwide, and virtuoso Nikolaj Znaider are bringing Tchaikovsky's beloved Violin Concerto to Davies Symphony Hall before Michael Tilson Thomas returns to conclude his 23rd year as Music Director.

MTT has got some treats in store: a semi-staged performance of Mussorgsky's epic "Boris Godunov," and Mahler's exalting Third Symphony, with favorite mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Both of the events bookend an enticing concert that features two Sibelius symphonies. Pianist Daniil Trifonov, concluding his season-long residency, will perform Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. That's a lot to look forward to, but life at DSH has been pulsing with energy and enjoyment all year.

Finnish conductor Malkki has made her mark with the SFS before, and if she isn't being considered as a possible contender to replace MTT after he departs, she ought to be. She is back to partner with violinist Znaider for the major favorite by Tchaikovsky, and to showcase Scriabin's infrequently heard but glittering and original "The Poem of Ecstasy." As a bonus, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's "Laterna Magica" is receiving its first SFS performances. We'll report soon on Susanna Malkki's latest results, and also go into more detail on MTT's plans.

Last week the SFS also featured some off-the-beaten-path repertoire and soul-stirring Tchaikovsky when guest conductor Semyon Bychkov returned to DSH with the renowned sister act the Labeques, Katia and Marielle. Marielle is married to Semyon, but Katia is hardly a third wheel onstage. It was a pleasure to welcome the talented siblings back to Davies after years of warmly recollected visits, and also family member Bychkov, who has enjoyed his own successes here.

The Russian maestro, newly appointed Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, made another fine impression with a precisely molded but affectionate interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2, "Little Russian." Tchaikovsky works have become a major career highlight for Bychkov with his "Tchaikovsky Project" recording series on Decca with the Czech Philharmonic; as part of his "Beloved Friend" Tchaikovsky festivals in London and New York last year; and as part of his regular repertoire. He has said, "I've loved Tchaikovsky's music ever since I can remember. Like all first loves, this one never died." I'm in agreement. My parents wisely introduced me to the deeply emotive Tchaikovsky at an impressionable age, and it kindled a life-long love of classical music, especially the Russians.

Bychkov opened the concert with a rarity. Sergei Taneyev's "Oresteia" Overture showed Tchaikovsky's influence, but the suitably weighty piece, a stand-alone concert work, related to the composer's huge opera with the same name, blossomed into a surprisingly cinematic sort of tone poem. It was an intriguing taste of an esoteric composer whose style foreshadowed the film scores of the early 20th century.

The lovely Labeques followed with another performance of an obscure work. They didn't revive much interest in exploring other scores by Max Bruch, famous mostly for his compositions for violin and orchestra, most notably the well-loved G-minor Concerto.

Bruch's Concerto for Two Pianos in A-flat minor turns out to be little more than a rather busy divertissement, but the prodigiously talented sisters gave it their considerable all, and the relatively brief (25 minutes) score whizzed happily in one ear and out the other. At least we got to hear the first (and probably last) SFS performances of a quirky showpiece, filled with tunes and a rousing finale.

Semyon Bychkov will return to the Bay Area this fall as part of a 10-city U.S. tour with the Czech Philharmonic. On November 11 and 12, they will be at DSH in Dvorak's Seventh Symphony and Cello Concerto with Alisa Weilerstein, and at the Mondavi Center in Davis in several Tchaikovsky works, including "Francesca da Rimini," Serenade for Strings, and First Piano Concerto with Kirill Gerstein.

The Labeque Sisters, Katia and Marielle, were part of a San Francisco Symphony program conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Photo: Umberto Nicoletti/San Francisco Symphony

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