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Symphonic landscapes

by Philip Campbell

Conductor Jakub Hrusa led "Banned and Boycotted: Music of Bartok and Shostakovich." Photo: Zbynek Maderyc, courtesy SFS
Conductor Jakub Hrusa led "Banned and Boycotted: Music of Bartok and Shostakovich." Photo: Zbynek Maderyc, courtesy SFS  

A fall feast of classical music performances is ongoing through November in San Francisco. Concerts large and small are providing a fine soundtrack to the days before Thanksgiving.

The opening night of New Century Chamber Orchestra's 2018-19 season started the month at Herbst Theatre, marking an important turning point for the conductorless ensemble. Violinist Daniel Hope is beginning his tenure as Music Director, following Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's remarkable nine years' guidance as concertmaster.

Hope was not on hand for the recent event, having appeared at the same venue the week before as star of "Air: A Baroque Journey." Hope took a deserved week off, allowing British violinist Anthony Marwood a chance to lead in his place. Marwood's international reputation is based on his advocacy of living composers and frequent collaborations with other chamber orchestras. Thomas Ades and Samuel Adams have written concertos for him, and he made the Queen's 2018 New Year's Honors List. That explains his unusual prominence on NCCO's opening night. Salerno-Sonnenberg and Hope are also high-energy personalities, but they tend to blend better with the ensemble, even in solo turns. Marwood was the undisputed star of "Opening Night: Anthony Marwood Leads." That's less a complaint than an observation, for his leadership from center stage produced a rich program featuring two contemporary works and a lovely rendition of Dvorak's cheerful Serenade for Strings in E Major.

London-born Sally Beamish has lived in Scotland for close to two decades, and one can hear the evocative influence of her home in Stirlingshire, famously known as the "gateway to the highlands." "Seavaigers" ("Seafarers"), arranged for violin, accordion and strings by James Crabb, opened the concert in a haunting way. It seemed to move through a windswept sea into a mysterious landscape, a warm and rowdy pub, then back outdoors into a luminous night. Marwood was a sophisticated fiddler in Beamish's delightfully roughhewn folk tunes, and arranger Crabb partnered him well on accordion.

Dvorak's Serenade ended the first half with a reminder of NCCO's rich tone and rhythmic solidarity. The concert's concluding performance of Peteris Vasks' engrossing Concerto for violin and string orchestra "Distant Light" brought Marwood back as soloist. Typical of the composer's immersive sound world, the Concerto was an impressive finale.

NCCO returns to various Bay Area venues in February with "Program 2: Recomposed." Daniel Hope will be concertmaster in Benjamin Britten's arrangements of works by Purcell and Schumann, Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," and Max Richter's "Recomposed: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons." Info:

Last week at Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony presented a thoughtfully varied concert with returning guest conductor Jakub Hrusa and violinist Karen Gomyo. Titled "Banned and Boycotted: Music of Bartok and Shostakovich," the ambitious bill included a suavely careful reading of Borodin's melodious Symphony No. 2 and Bartok's dark-hued Suite from "The Miraculous Mandarin."

There was no denying the appeal of Borodin's gorgeous orchestrations, and the musicians followed Hrusa in a beautifully sonorous if slightly bland performance. Conductor and players really cut loose in Bartok's initially censored (for the lurid subject matter) ballet score. The Suite is a tumultuous series of scenes from the violent full-length work. The composer's startling bursts of savage energy were tempered by the orchestra in moments of strange beauty and a superb solo by principal clarinet Carey Bell.

The true center of the concert was Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto, also subject to censorship in its own way. Repressive Soviet politics made the composer self-censor and hide it away for years, before he could share it in a safer climate.

Young Japanese violinist Karen Gomyo made her SFS debut in 2007. Her recent triumph should assure a faster return next time. Starting slowly with building passion, she made wonderful sense of the composer's deeply emotional outpouring. Hrusa and the orchestra sympathetically framed her heart-stopping virtuosity. Ironic wit was blended with passages of sorrowful lament. When the long, completely involving performance ended, Gomyo summoned more strength for an encore, a pensive Etude #4 from Piazzolla's Six Tango Etudes.

Michael Tilson Thomas' "Diary of Anne Frank" and the Beethoven Ninth (a special United Nations Anniversary event) finish November at DSH. Both concerts offer especially well-timed meaning as music-lovers cling to hope for a better new year. Info:


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