Guest Conductor Roulette

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Wednesday March 14, 2018
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Guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado
Guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado

For the past two weeks at Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony played host to a pair of talented guest conductors. Spanish maestro Pablo Heras-Casado has grown in local popularity with numerous prior visits, and British musical leader Edward Gardner, Chief Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, made a positive first impression in his well-received debut.

The recent announcement of SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas' plans for his second-to-last season, before stepping down after 2019-20, only intensified interest in the visiting conductors' qualifications as possible contenders for his position. It is early speculation for now, but that won't stop regulars and new listeners from watching visitors with heightened scrutiny.

Guest conductor Edward Gardner. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega  

Most recently, Edward Gardner joined with pianist Simon Trpceski in a program that sometimes felt like a very accomplished Pops concert. That light-hearted air endeared both artists to a receptive audience, and relaxed the atmosphere in the hall.

Trpceski's agile attack on Gershwin's evergreen "Rhapsody in Blue" in Ferde Grofe's orchestral setting was still quite thrilling. The musicians of the SFS have proven their jazz chops as recently as 2016 in the "Summer with the Symphony" series, and the latest soloist could stand with them in his own showy and idiomatic way. He played Paul Desmond's "Take Five" in a solo take on the Dave Brubeck Quartet's version for an encore. He can swing easily with American classics, and it was a lot of fun.

Gardner also showed versatility in opening and closing selections. Michael Tippett's Ritual Dances from "The Midsummer Marriage" started the night in a rhythmically stimulating and sensuous performance. Briefly introducing the piece with his own enthusiastic endorsement, the lively conductor proceeded to make an attractive case for the challenging (to play) suite of dances. It was good to see an English conductor promoting an English composer other than Britten or Elgar. The orchestra managed to expertly follow his lead in the extremely tricky and quirkily engaging score.

Gardner served up Rachmaninoff's lush Symphonic Dances for the concert's finale. Regardless of critical condescension over the years, the Russian composer's glorious gift for melody has survived. His brilliant talent for dramatic orchestration can still elicit a delighted audience response.

The previous week, Pablo Heras-Casado got his own props from another excited crowd with a cleverly balanced program that also showed his versatility. The first SFS performances of "Helix" (2005) by Esa Pekka-Salonen opened the concert with an impressive display of Heras-Casado's and the orchestra's grip on modern music. The steadily building piece is a brief visceral exercise in rhythm and dense harmonics that finishes with a blast.

SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik was center stage next, for the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 2 (1967). He gave a good if not equally exciting performance, faring best in the contemplative moments, but also expertly covering the passagework.

The heat turned up rather unexpectedly after intermission when the alert and musically experienced conductor proved once again he is more than just another handsome face and agreeable personality. The person next to me couldn't help mentioning his sunny smile, but Heras-Casado tore into the Brahms First Symphony with uncommon strength, quickly blowing the dust off a beloved masterpiece. Everyone talks about the burnished, autumnal sound of Brahms, but Heras-Casado evokes a warmer springtime atmosphere. He coaxed the musicians to some of their richest and most detailed playing of the season. They could probably play Brahms with their eyes closed, but they partnered to make a fresh and urgent statement.

This Week at Davies

The Big Kahuna is back on the podium at DSH this week with a program that spotlights his own insights into contrasting modern music. MTT and the SFS give the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning and MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Charles Wuorinen's "Sudden Changes." The bill includes Copland's Symphony No. 3, featuring his famous theme "Fanfare for the Common Man."

The concert is loosely called "American Optimism" for Copland and Wuorinen, but the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto will also be performed. Wuorinen is currently based on the East Coast and married to his manager, Howard Stokar. He has also been a friend to MTT for years. We know him from his four years as Composer-in-Residence to the SFS.

Copland was a gay composer, and another friend and colleague to MTT. So let's hear it for members of the home team. More info on "American Optimism" at