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Before Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas returns from hiatus in mid-June, the San Francisco Symphony will present the final three guest conductors of the 2017-18 season. For the past two weeks, other maestros have taken the podium at Davies Symphony Hall, making spring at Grove and Van Ness something like a mini-festival of contrasting leadership styles.
Recent concerts included guest instrumental soloists - no new faces to DSH, but a pair of talented young returnees. Programs have ranged from dramatic to light-hearted. All have been marked by the Orchestra's sensitive and professional performance.
French cellist Gautier Capucon shows a new side to his interpretive insights and technique every time he appears with the SFS. His repertoire is varied, but he brings passion to every piece. We have heard him play composers from Schumann and Dvorak to Elgar and Henri Dutilleux, bringing his own stamp to all. With astonishing skill, Capucon proves his understanding every time.
It took all of his bravura and Gallic good looks to sell Camille Saint-Saens' brief but theatrical Cello Concerto No. 1 last week. On a program that felt like a "Pops" postcard visit to France and the Mediterranean, Capucon's traversal of the tight little piece offered fresh appreciation of an often-underestimated composer.
Returning guest conductor Stephane Deneve filled the rest of the concert with lighthearted fare, including the immediately likable first SFS performances of French composer Guillaume Connesson's "E chiaro nella valle il fiume." Connesson evokes the beauty of the Italian landscape with a richly orchestrated score that goes in one ear and out the other, leaving a pleasant feeling of nostalgia. The smell of Hollywood is stronger than the scents of Italia, but the composer has a melodic gift, and Deneve is a sympathetic champion.
The evening concluded with more big-screen Technicolor tour music: Respighi's ever-popular "Pines of Rome" (1924). Deneve set to work with obvious pleasure, and the resulting performance knocked the socks off the enthusiastic crowd. Personal taste shouldn't look down on someone else's good time. I admit to sharing in everyone's admiration of the musicians' virtuosity. Soloists were positioned throughout the hall, and with everyone playing onstage at full-tilt, one could easily be seduced once more by Respighi's stirring snapshots.
The prior week, another accomplished young soloist returned to the DSH spotlight in his first appearances on a subscription series program. Born in Taiwan and raised in Australia, violinist Ray Chen is a charismatically handsome performer who proves he has a prodigious musical gift as well. Growing in maturity, Chen has been building a strong fan-base with his relaxed stage demeanor and startling ability.
He probably needs to get a few more miles on him before delivering a fully-individualized statement on something as weighty as Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major, but his recent interpretation showed he has been scrupulously preparing. Giving a fine but slightly under-flavored performance, Chen conveyed a sturdy understanding of the composer's musical structure.
Conductor Juraj Valcuha supported well, and the orchestra sounded plush, but the collaboration between orchestral musicians and guest leader exploded on the second half. A sensational rendition of Prokofiev's feverish Symphony No. 3 showed the composer was right in thinking it one of his greatest accomplishments. Valcuha sort of keeps his own personality in check onstage, but he urges the players to thrilling, emotive expression.
In coming weeks, conductors David Robertson, Semyon Bychkov, and Susanna Malkki lead the Orchestra in programs in May and June. They are all familiar artists to SFS audiences, and share a history of warm rapport.
Robertson appears for the first SFS performances and U.S. premiere of Brett Dean's "Engelsflugel" ("Wings of Angels"), which pays homage to the music of Brahms. That composer's mighty Piano Concerto No. 1 is also on the bill, performed by pianist Kirill Gerstein.
Semyon Bychkov is coming back in performances of Taneyev's "Oresteia" Overture, followed by Bruch's Concerto for Two Pianos, featuring famous and admired sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque.
Another highly anticipated return brings Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki to DSH, conducting Scriabin's infrequently performed but wonderful "The Poem of Ecstasy" and Kaija Saariaho's "Laterna Magica," inspired by Ingmar Bergman's autobiography of the same name. Tchaikovsky's beloved Violin Concerto in D Major, performed by Nikolaj Znaider, is on the bill.
That should hold us quite nicely until MTT's return later in the month with a semi-staged production of Mussorgsky's glorious "Boris Godunov." More info at: www.sfsymphony.org.