DJ / Composer Mason Bates. Photo Lydia Danmiller.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti Visit San Francisco: Honegger: Pacific 231, Bates: Alternative Energy, Franck: Symphony in D-minor

Choose wisely what and how you imitate…. This may be the composer’s lesson to take away from last Tuesday’s much anticipated San Francisco visit by the Chicago Symphony, led by Riccardo Muti. Though Muti’s program concluded traditionally, with the Franck Symphony in D-minor, the first half of his concert was devoted to two pieces which undertake, with differing levels of success, the engineering of musical expression through depiction.

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!

Yuri Temirkanov Conducts the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra with Nikolai Lugansky, Piano in Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov

recent San Francisco visit of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, grandly led by Yuri Temirkanov and featuring Nikolai Lugansky as piano soloist, is a fine example of why one should make a point of hearing orchestras on tour.

Present-day listeners are frequently tempted to overgeneralize about music in Russia, knowing only Valery Gergiev or some of the younger conductors currently recording in the UK. Gergiev’s brand of intensity sometimes invites lurid cliches about Russian “barbaric splendor.” Indeed, there have been Gergiev concerts where passion seemed to destroy luster and raw perspiration carried the day—an approach more bear than bearnaise. So it is enlightening to encounter in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic the continuation of a highly charged but more patrician attitude towards music-making. One recalls that Mravinsky and his “Leningrad Philharmonic” cast a grand Karajan-like shadow over the Russian-speaking musical world for forty years. Something of that special dignity remains. Indeed, an almost nineteenth-century manner.

Myung-Whun Chung conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in an All-Ravel Program

For a good part of this reviewer’s life, it would seem, the world has been waiting for a truly great International French symphony orchestra. At mid-century, a general feeling was that the Boston Symphony under Sergei Koussevitzky and Charles Munch carried the torch for French music, ably assisted by Paul Paray in Detroit, Pierre Monteux wherever he could be found, and, on disc, by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva.

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