Victor Borge "shakes hands" with Lang Lang.

…and just what is Fame? Long live Victor Borge! Lang Lang joins MTT and the SF Symphony in Cowell, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff

Long live the spirit of Victor Borge!

“What?” you say.

This odd notion popped into my head recently, as I witnessed for the first time pianist Lang Lang perform live. In town at the beginning of November to play the Prokofiev Third Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, he was such a stunning and (to me) unexpectedly enjoyable success, that I found myself pondering the very nature of musical stardom, almost as much as the music itself…

Ottorino Respighi

Petrenko conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Respighi, Bartók, and Pärt, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Piano, in his SFS Debut

Just call me Caesar!

Several weeks out and here I am, pulse quickened, still in thrall to legions from the Pines of Rome passing in review beneath my feet! The kaleidoscopic power of Respighi’s music hasn’t faded in my ears. Most patrons think of their car-keys within moments of a concert’s end. I’m still growling-out my version of “Catacombs” in the shower and banging kettledrum fists on the tiles three weeks later… But I was fortunate to sit a few rows above the trombones during the second half of the Vasily Petrenko’s recent stint with the San Francisco Symphony, and the acoustic perspective there provided an astonishingly powerful, sonically blended experience. So much for seating. But it says something about a conductor, too, when you are still marching about weeks later, barely able to contain within yourself the excitement you experienced!

Semyon Bychkov. Photo by Fabrizio Ferri.

The San Francisco Symphony Opens its New Season with Semyon Bychkov

There is always something a little peculiar about opening week at the San Francisco Symphony. Audiences have been away for the summer and are distractible. The orchestra may sound a bit less used to itself than usual. Sunlight in the lobby is still too bright for anyone to settle down. And programming commonly amounts either to a Gala smorgasbord or a visit to Denny’s, but seldom manages subtlety for musical gourmets. No different this year, but with a few wacky touches from the peanut gallery — about which more in a moment.

Michael Francis. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Michael Francis Conducts the San Francisco Symphony in “My Classic Americana,” With Pianist Charlie Albright in His San Francisco Debut

It’s silly season again at the San Francisco Symphony! A quick report from the front. And a debut teaser for later. Do we have a new Horowitz?

 

In perfect weather, with no need for a sylvan retreat, we San Franciscans simply shine a colored spotlight on the Davies Hall organ pipes in July, and Presto, music becomes festive! “My Classic Americana” is one of several programs containing well-known works Michael Francis has been leading this summer, with super zest and limited rehearsal. At times he’s got us clapping along in such good spirits, we might as well be at the Albert Hall Proms. The young Englishman has now conducted several summer seasons in San Francisco and is a great hit with our audience, bringing just the right touch of knowing wit, uncomplicated musicality, good spirits and schoolboy snark to the proceedings.

Charles Dutoit.

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Davies Hall — A Great Legend Intact — Two Concerts

The Philadelphia Orchestra always WAS the sexiest!

Back in the publicity heyday of art music and the aftermath of Toscanini, Americans knew their five orchestras. It went like this: in Boston you listened to Charles Munch for Gallic excitability. In Chicago, Reiner ruled with a heart of stone but turned out warmer central European renditions than Toscanini had. You flocked to Bernstein for eruptive passion and disreputable energy in New York. And at Severance Hall, in a state of penance, you submitted to the owlish purges of George Szell. But nothing seduced the listener so much as The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. Photo Chris Lee.

The New York Philharmonic; Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano; at Davies Hall, San Francisco, play Dvořák, Lindberg, and Tchaikovsky

I caught recently one of the concerts given in Davies Hall by the New York Philharmonic, my old hometown band, as part of our 100th Anniversary Season. It was enough to set me thinking again about the role a good hall plays in shaping the fame of an ensemble.

Fifty years of struggle with the Lincoln Center acoustic has clearly left its mark on the New York orchestra’s reputation — though I must say not on the quality of its playing — which remains stunningly world class. But one is surprised to find in the sonority a burnished warmth and tonal delicacy similar to that of the Cleveland Orchestra. Understated tonal virtues have seldom been possible at Broadway and 65th Street. At least in the way we think of the orchestra. But they were notable here and speak well of Alan Gilbert’s Music Directorship.

Conductor Susanna Mälkki. Photo Simon Fowler.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Grisey, Prokofiev, and Sibelius, with Horacio Gutiérrez, piano

Music making, one supposes wryly, can sometimes be a battle of influences. In this instance, simply put, how does one reconcile late romantic Sibelius with the compositional methods of Pierre Boulez? The very thought might give one chills….

I was intrigued to hear IRCAM’s Susanna Mälkki recently, and not simply to touch base with the new generation of influential women at the podium. I wanted to experience how her musical approach would walk the line between cerebral pointillism of the Boulezian sort and the kind of broad Barbirollian phrasing favored by Leif Segerstam, with whom she studied. Mälkki was one of the principal cellists in the Gothenburg Symphony — for Sibelius lovers a considerable entry on the romantic side of the ledger — but I find myself disappointed to say that in this instance the French modernists appear to have won most of the battles of influence.

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