Music / The Berkshire Review in San Francisco

Vasily Petrenko and Joshua Bell in a Russo-English Program with the SF Symphony: Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Elgar

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Vasily Petrenko. Photo Mark McNulty.
Vasily Petrenko. Photo Mark McNulty.

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, October 8, 2011
Vasily Petrenko, conductor
Joshua Bell, violin

Shostakovich – Festive Overture, Opus 96 (1954)
Tchaikovsky (arr. Glazunov) – Méditation, from Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op. 42, No.1 (1878/1896)
Glazunov – Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82 (1904)
Elgar – Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 55 (1908)


Hats off, ladies and Gentlemen!  A conductor!  And a great symphony!

Vasily Petrenko’s recent electrifying week with the San Francisco Symphony reminds the listener that Gustavo Dudamel is not the sole “conducting animal” to be found on the musical circuit these days. Esa-Pekka Salonen coined the term a while back, with the impassioned Venezuelan in mind. And indeed, Dudamel is the sort of refreshing performer who has the winds jumping to their feet like jazz musicians and bass players twirling their instruments. He is all about emotion as vitality. But physically, apart from the energy with which he beats time, his manner is unremarkable.

The fascination of Petrenko, by contrast, is his ability to reflect every quivering moment of the music somewhere on his face or body, as though he were a disembodied hologram. We joke about people who are “double-jointed.” But Vasily Petrenko might as well be quadruple-sprung and then some…this is a man who’d have no trouble tapping three heads, rubbing five tummies and signalling with numerous eyebrows at the same time!

The young Lorin Maazel was like that, too, but Maazel’s virtuosity was always used to impress people with how clever he thought himself. He’d lean one way, while cueing someone on the other side with a spare finger, or imitate the hanging head of Till Eulenspiegel on the gallows, or throw himself over the podium railing at concert’s end, like a prize-fighter waiting for his towel. And you’d realize from certain record covers that Maazel was clearly impressed with how much his profile resembled that of Mahler. You certainly saw enough of it. His presence on the podium, in other words, was about him. Petrenko will have an equally important career, I’m certain, but more in service to the music. Already beloved by his players in Liverpool, soon to take on the Oslo Philharmonic, he has, at age 36, clearly just begun—and with his ego in the right place.

The Shostakovich Festive Overture is one of the few pieces in the composer’s output which can be savored without irony, and that makes it a perfect curtain opener. It was written just after Stalin’s death, in a more tolerant era for composers, and its zest simply signifies, well…zest!  Vasily Petrenko looked about seventeen as he conducted it. Though he is double that age, with a wife and children, Petrenko’s crew cut seemed almost transparent in the stage lights, and his beanpole suppleness and long finger joints made every cue a thing of fascination. Especially unusual is an apparently unconscious ability to unfold the fingers of his hands independently knuckle by knuckle. At one point I witnessed a three part diminuendo on his left-hand little finger alone, while the other arm was fully engaged doing something else.

The effect upon the audience was immediately electrifying, and though one would never feel that the iconic and accomplished Joshua Bell could ever be upstaged, he definitely had to share the excitement, of which there was plenty to go around. To this day, Joshua Bell looks like the young Tom Cruise in black party pajamas. And he hasn’t lost in iota of dedication in what he plays. The Tchaikovsky Méditation is probably better off as a solo romance, rather than as the originally intended slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. It is a bit too heavy and serious to fit into the nimbleness of the concerto, but pleasing in its own right, and Bell did it full justice. His percussive energy has always been tempered by the way he dips into downbeats with a shock-absorbing motion of the torso, and the result, as always, was sheer satin beauty.

The one-movement Glazunov Violin Concerto followed, elegantly done. It was amusing to watch some of the audience get confused by the seemingly endless stream of beautiful melody. A man near me was hunting helplessly in his program notes for signs of a slow movement. Fruitlessly, as it turned out. Glazunov works out the original material throughout the work and puts the slow “movement” before the first movement “development.” Oops!

But it all works perfectly. Glazunov was a prodigy, who loved playing with form. His Seventh Symphony, for example, rewrites the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastorale—same instrumentation, phrase length, number of bars, key changes, etc. One might argue that Tchaikovsky surpassed him in the ability to make rhetoric organic, but there is no better melodist in all of music, and the Glazunov symphonies and ballet scores greatly reward the revival now taking place.

And the Elgar First Symphony? Fully revived, I should say! It is hard to remember that before the late sixties, there were no recordings of the piece in American record stores, and the work was almost completely unknown, a victim of almost national prejudice. As late as 1971, reviewers for Solti’s ground-breaking LP, which imitated the composer’s own recording, felt obligated to apologize for Elgar as a Colonel Blimp of empire, marching towards Trafalgar Square. To confuse a musical issue like that today, one would have to criticize Brahms for representing Imperial Germany and the Kaiser! Fortunately, the politicization of great music by dead composers has fallen put of favor. And the understanding of Elgar as a deeply introverted musical genius has carried the day.

The trick to conducting the Elgar symphonies is not to be afraid of what’s in the music. Too many conductors approach the works as though they were by Brahms and balance the winds and timpani accordingly. The listener then comes away with the sense of a piece that is really Straussian, but lacking in color. This used to be the approach of Edo DeWaart, who cannot be faulted for reviving the music thirty years ago in San Francisco. Vasily Petrenko, however, evoked a dynamic and idiomatically flawless performance, leaning heavily on the hidden snaps and snarls lurking in the brass and never fearing to punch the listener breathless with a drumbeat in the solar plexus. In the course of doing this, there was nonetheless great subtlety—you never felt that Petrenko was “going Russian” on you—just bold as Elgar wanted one to be—and the music greatly benefitted.

One of the usual arguments made by people expecting pomp, who don’t know the Elgar First as well as they perhaps should, is the claim that the motto theme with which it opens turns out to be “too much of a good thing.”  But that is only if what follows is conducted in a less interesting manner. Here the parts were equal to the whole, and the endless transformation of the motto theme in every movement only served to underline what a beautifully organized piece of music it is.

Some of this criticism stems from the open march quality of the motto, contrasted with the much more chromatic music that follows. But with Elgar, that is the point. In the dark night of his soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning. And those creepy inner moments reveal the duality, so understood by every thinking person, of personal miseries and insecurities coexisting with massive hope.

It is often written that the slow movement is one of the most sublime since Beethoven, and that it certainly was on Saturday, with exquisite near silences from the San Francisco players of the sort not to be heard in the conducting of Michael Tilson Thomas. But the finale has always been especially intriguing to me. The introduction is rife with things pulsating and menacing from down below. Yet the falling dotted allegro theme with carries forward the main body of the movement has always had a classic quality, rather resembling Mozart’s Prague Symphony. At the conclusion of the development section the motto theme transforms itself heartbreakingly into the major, and there follows, I feel, the saddest and most ambiguous music in the work.

As the transformed motto theme aims consolingly and yearningly for the stars, it somehow keeps falling, harps and all, and a slow pushing motion from the orchestra repeatedly tries to buoy it up, only to have the whole endeavor fall back into the real world. When the big peroration comes, it is no wonder we don’t know fully what to make of it. The easy triumphant parts of the march are interrupted repeatedly by attacks from syncopated versions of themselves. As the piece finally slithers off into a running passage leading to the last chord, one can be forgiven for thinking the ending might be feeble. And in every performance I’ve heard until this one, it more or less is. It ends on a short chord for brass and timpani. But as befitted the sheer electricity of his approach Petrenko, managed to make that last chord sound like a hand grenade. The audience went soccer-wild!

There is nothing more resistant to analysis than why a musical performance works, but when a visit to the concert hall gives you satisfactions you didn’t anticipate in a piece you have loved all your life, you know you have been in the presence of greatness. Elgar’s greatness, it goes without saying…but here I speak of Petrenko’s accomplishment. At thirty-six he is already a great conductor. At sixty-six he will be iconic and devastating. Competence is the norm these days, and often much, much better. But this is genius, ladies and gentlemen.

As I said at the beginning. Hats Off!


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