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…

Jessye Norman, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Meredith Monk in John Cage's "Song Books"

American Mavericks at Davies Hall: the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas and Friends Play Cage, Foss, Cowell, and Ruggles

Revolutions, the saying goes, are frequently revisited as farce. If only one knew it at the time! In the ferment of the 1970s, a seeming battle to the death played itself out among advocates of dodecaphonic music and the apostles of deconstructed “happenings.” Both insurgencies would ultimately lose. But the arrogance of the revolutionaries was no different in music from what it would have been in politics. The average listener hoping for Brahms found himself besieged in those days—contemptuously marginalized in either camp—-and marked for replacement. That is always the frightening dimension of revolution: the smugness of the cook breaking eggs for the new omelette—-and the suspicion that you may be one of the eggs.

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

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!

San Francisco Symphony: MTT and Yo-Yo Ma in Hindemith’s Cello Concerto, with Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 and Brahms’ First Symphony

One happy consequence of San Francisco’s famously late summers is the continuing presence of European visitors well into the fall concert season. Warm weather and serious indoor music are a rare mix, and this is the time of year to experience the best of both. So it was no surprise last Saturday to encounter a happy swirl of German voices in the Davies Hall lobby. In fairness to heresy, the French were also out in good humor–or at least the Belgians and Swiss–and for a very German program, too–not to mention unusual numbers of young Asian women, about which more in a moment.

MTT conducts the SF Symphony in Cowell, Mozart (with Gil Shaham), and John Adams’ Harmonielehre

Last week’s program at the San Francisco Symphony carried a sense of celebration with it. John Adams was in attendance, giving luster to the orchestra’s new performance and recording of his “Harmonielehre” under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. (Edo De Waart taped the piece in his final year as Music Director, when Adams was composer-in-residence.) There has always been a tendency to rally around the orchestra in San Francisco — cultural boosterism being one of the old-fashioned charms of this now rather important city, which sometimes still thinks of itself as a town and behaves like one in its enthusiasms — and John Adams is a local hero in the orchestra’s history. But the spontaneous applause I heard on Saturday seemed to go beyond these boundaries. It is a though, from the standpoint of an audience, Adams were being hailed for having rescued contemporary music — and indeed, he just may have.

MTT leads the San Francisco Symphony in Harrison, Copland and Tchaikovsky

Several solid hits and a bit of a bunt. That’s how it seemed last Saturday at the San Francisco Symphony.  Returning from a recent European tour, Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra set before the Davies audience three American works that played brilliantly to his strengths and temperament, and a performance of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony which brought the house down, but seemed a touch undetailed.

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