San Francisco Symphony, June 28
Although the San Francisco Symphony is still in the middle of its regular season, performing in their normal black attire rather than their summery white ice cream man ones, it feels like summer has already begun. In general, during their regular season, the big stars such as Argerich, Bell, Lang Lang, and Ma come out to play, and the programming is filled with either big commissions from the hottest big name composers of today or towards more experienced classical music connoiseur tastes, such as Mahler symphonies. In contrast, the summer seems to be filled with newer (i.e. younger) more unknown soloists, and the programming tends to include either really standard classic big hits, such as the Beethoven symphonies, or very modern experimental ones by smaller composers. Summer programming seems less serious and more fun in general, possibly with the intent to draw in newer audiences, and offering more familiar classics or more fun modern ones. The program this past Saturday night fit the bill of a summer concert by the San Francisco Symphony.
Conducted by David Robertson, the program opened with Witold Lutoslawski’s Mi-Parti. Composed in 1976, this piece utilized the idea of “aleatory” , derived from the Latin for dice and gambler. Performers are given the freedom to randomly play their music at whatever speed and time they want. Conductor David Robertson conducted for a majority of the piece by counting with his fingers each period of improvisation. The program notes makes a comparison to a crowd scene in a film; rather than scripting out words for each actor, the actors are given instructions to talk about anything. The notes state that there is a rich possibility of sound with each performer doing something different. However, a flaw in this logic occurs with the fact that random noise begins to sound alike, rather than being a world of wildly varying possibility in each performance. In other words, a counterintuitive convergence occurs in randomness, as crowded rooms tend to sound fairly alike from room to room. Despite this, the piece was intriguing in its use of new ideas, punctuated by a frenzied urgent climax complete with ascending brass and brightly colored percussion.
The program continued with 20th century music, but in the more palatable and traditional fare, with Janacek’s Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra, inspired by Gogol’s tale of a war-loving Cossack with the same title. As evocative as movie music, this piece favored rich, lilting music of the country. The organ, played by Jeffrey Smith, added a reverent hymnic note, alternating abruptly with lurking war overtones. The second movement said to describe the torture of a soldier to his death, illustrated with a harsh slashing motif passing through each string section, alternating with a lush song marred by a continuous ominous march in the lower strings. The last movement’s air is elation and militaristic victory over defeat. It was Janacek’s brilliance at how without even reading the program notes, political connotations were inherently obvious in the music.
The program ended with Dvorak’s famous cello concerto, played by the young Alisa Weilerstein. My seatmate accused me of only calling musicians young if they were younger than I (she was born in 1982). Weilerstein played as if this piece was written for her, excelling in its melodramatic Romanticism with an exuberance of youth in her intensely dramatic performance, with every note played to its full emotional potential. Fast passages got faster and faster until notes nearly tumbled over each other in a freshly exciting way. The last time I heard this concerto was by Yo-Yo Ma, and the only minor quibble I have is that the emotional intensity stayed tirelessly high at breakneck acceleration during the entire concerto. Even in the quieter moments Weilerstein was pushing through to burst out again, instead of being more in the moment, savoring its quiet stillness. I attribute this to her youth, because in 30 years from now there’s no way that she can continue to play at this high intense level without collapsing from sheer exhaustion. More editing and conservation of energy will have to take place, which will add variety and depth to her already stellar performance. As I always say, give me a passionate musical performance over a technical one any day. She had the technique and the musicality to spare, and will be an exciting performer to watch for in the near future. And how cool is it that she has a degree from Columbia University in Russian history?
It’s so comforting to know that a new generation of musicians such as Alisa Weilerstein are emerging onto the classical music scene, ready to take on the world. I definitely look forward to seeing her again in the future.
From her website.