Category Archives: classical music

2013 Fourteenth Van Cliburn Piano Competition

Four years ago, I became hopelessly addicted to the livestream of the famous international Van Cliburn Piano Competition. The fact that it featured a blind piano player Nobuyuki Tsujii (who ended up winning a shared gold medal) and some brilliant performances that still stand out in my mind today, only fueled the fire. The fourteenth Van Cliburn Piano Competition is currently underway in Fort Worth, Texas, once again, and again, the competition is kindly offering a free livestream of the competition to audiences all around the world.

And people are watching. And commenting. And having opinions. And in general, having a blast and enjoying some incredible piano playing. It’s so amazing that although these young piano players are playing halfway across the US, we are able to peek in and experience their triumphs.

The format of the competition has changed a lot this year, with all thirty preliminary round competitors playing a whopping two 45 minute recitals in the prelim rounds, and in exchange, taking out the solo recital in the finals. Thus it means in the finals, competitors are solely judged on their concertos and their ability to work with an orchestra, rather than their ability to take the stage as soloists. It’s nice to be able to hear more piano playing in the prelim rounds with lots more music to experience in this new format, but I’m afraid that this shifts the final winners to be better collaborators rather than solo piano players. But perhaps this is what also made the namesake Van Cliburn famous, with his Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 that earned him accolades at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and thus it’s fitting that the competition reflects Van Cliburn’s success.

In general compared to four years ago, my opinion is that the general standard of piano playing is higher this year, with some incredible piano playing and virtuosity. However, I haven’t really heard anything outstanding yet, not like four years ago. No one performance has stuck out above the rest in my mind – Tomoki Sakata

may have come the closest, but to be fair, I haven’t listened to all of the competitors play their entire recitals yet. Sean Chen also plays with incredible intelligence. And thankfully, the judges appear to be looking for the same thing I’m looking for, which is something surprising and unique. A lot of people were shocked when American Steven Lin didn’t make it to the semi-finals, a player leading his virtuositic foot that literally made my jaw drop. But it proved to not be enough. In the world of classical piano playing, even winning this competition means a very tough career ahead of these young piano players. There are so many players competing for a career, and in a saturated market, these judges appear to realize that virtuosity and the “wow” factor isn’t enough. Give us something unique, something surprising, something that grabs our attention in a busy iPhone crowded world. And the jurors have appropriately been picking competitors to advance based on these qualities rather than audience popularity alone.

The finals should be fascinating. I’m so looking forward to the Mozart Piano Concerto in d minor by Tomoki Sakata, as well as by Nikita Mndoyants, in addition to the standard romantic concertos by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. Kholodenko’s Mozart concerto in C major should

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be interesting as well.

A huge shoutout to the webcast team, who is doing an excellent job. I am consistently amazed at the quality of the filming on the webcast, as well as the excellent lighting.

Please keep the webcast free, Cliburn! Be sure to watch the livecast, here. Follow their twitter feed for comments and information, here.

An interview with flute player Annie Wu

The Mondavi Center graciously invited me to watch their dress rehearsal for their show, NPR’s “From the Top“, which is an NPR

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radio show hosted by Christopher O’Riley that features young musicians. In addition, I got to interview one of the performers, a rising young star flute player Annie Wu, who is as adorable in person as she is in the video. Widely known as the “beatbox flute player”, I saw this viral video way before I knew she was coming to the Mondavi Center. She is also more prestigiously known as the 2011 high school soloist winner of the National Flute Association. My conversation with her really reminded me of my old high school flute days, and it was definitely a trip back to memory lane for me. Below is a brief interview we conducted prior to her dress rehearsal (edited slightly for content.)

When did you start playing the flute?

I started when I was 8, and I’m 16 now, so I’ve been playing flute for eight years now. I started playing piano when I was five, and I really liked it. But my older sister picked another instrument to play when she was 9 – she picked cello. And I wanted to pick a new instrument too, and I wanted to pick something different from my sister. I had a picture dictionary with an instrument page, I ended up picking the flute from the dictionary randomly. And I’m glad I did!

Tell me about the Three Beats for the Beatbox Flute video.

The piece was the commissioned piece for the National Flute Association competition. When I got it in the mail, I was really surprised. Greg Pattillo [the composer] had been there

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at the NFA the year before, and I saw him perform there. The program was really good and really funny, for instance he performed the Peter and the Wolf with beatboxing and stuff. It was really interesting. I never thought about doing beatboxing for myself, but when I got the music for the commissioned piece for NFA, he sent us videos of him playing the piece. So there were no instructions, but he just played it, and that was our instruction, to watch him play it. When I first saw the video, it was really intimidating because when you don’t have the music in front of you and you’ve never done anything like that before – I was pretty scared. Working on it was pretty crazy because you have to learn everything by yourself, and I only had two months. But it was a great experience in the end because it’s such a different aspect of music, and I think that’s the whole point of the commissioned piece.

How did you learn to beatbox?

I learned from youtube videos and just trying it myself. At first, it was really discouraging because if you don’t get it at first, you feel like you don’t have enough time. What I did was basically search a bunch of youtube videos and looked at tutorials online. As a flute player, I’m comfortable with anything classical, but this was definitely a new experience for me. Usually I listen to classical music, but in preparing for this piece, I tried to

listen to more music with heavier beats.

Whose idea was the costume?

Before the NFA competition, I wanted to have a recital for my family and community to prepare, so I can play through the whole program and get a feel for it. I held my own recital at a church near my house, and I played through the whole NFA program. I wanted to do something neat for the Three Beats piece, and my friends were there, and I wanted to break the ice a little bit. It’s not something that you’re expecting after Dutilleux! And so I just came out with sunglasses and a hat and just had fun with it.

Are you surprised by the attention that this video has gotten?

Yes! It’s been amazing, and I think it’s cool how people focus on the beatbox aspect of the piece. And now I’m

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really glad that it’s a piece that I’ll always have in my repertoire. The beatbox video has also brought back a lot of opportunities for performing – I got to play in Las Vegas, for instance.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I’m a junior in high school, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s a hard question to answer, but so far, I really do want to do music. But at this point I’m not sure if I want to solely do music at a conservatory or a dual program or something at a university. I’m trying to keep all my options open, but at this point, I really want to do music.

Who are the flute players you admire?

First, it’s my teacher Isabelle Chapuis who’s been my biggest inspiration for the past two years that I’ve been with her. I also really like Tim Day with the San Francisco Symphony; since I’m in the youth orchestra, we get to watch a lot of the SF Symphony concerts. And I also like Robert Stallman, and Emmanuel Pahud. This summer, we went on tour with my orchestra and we played in Berlin, and I got to sit in his seat! That was really exciting.

Are you excited about performing in NPR’s “From The Top”?

Yes, I’m very excited! It’s really exciting to meet the other performers and to work with Christopher O’Riley. I listen to the show  and we’ll listen to it when we’re in the car. I’m playing Copeland, and then I’m ending with a part of the Three Beats piece.

Many thanks for the Mondavi Center and for Annie Wu for this interview. Best of luck to you, Annie! We’ll be watching out for you.

NPR’s “From the Top” will be taped live tomorrow night on October 25 at the Mondavi Center, and will air on NPR sometime in the near future.

Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts

Review: Takacs Quartet with Nobuyuki Tsujii

Takacs Quartet, image provided by the Mondavi Center

The Takacs Quartet graced the stage of the Mondavi Center in a warmly nuanced performance. I was struck by the transparency of the genre of string quartets, where balance and technique is magnified to the utmost, and even the smallest tilt in one direction is glaringly obvious. The Takacs Quartet however are proven experts, and their unity was in moments, breathtaking. In Haydn’s String Quartet in g Minor, “The Rider”, the quartet began with a few technical difficulties but melted comfortingly in the slow second movement, where the harmonies and beautiful melodies were savored to the last moment. The program took a different turn with Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, ruled atonal meanderings with a touch of fantasy and a lot of heart. The quartet personified music that was felt, not studied or analyzed.

Van Cliburn gold medalist Nobuyuki Tsujii joined the quartet for their final piece, Schumann’s Quintet for Piano and String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 44. I previously wrote about Tsujii and followed him closely throughout the Van Cliburn competition back in 2009, where Tsujii won the gold medal (along with pianist Haochen Zhang), being the first blind pianist to win the Van Cliburn competition. It was a thrilling experience to be able to see him live, playing the same piece that he played in one of the final rounds of the Van Cliburn competition.

Aside from the sheer impossibility of a blind pianist playing  chamber music (cueing through breaths and carefully memorized rests and perfect timing and lots of rehearsal no doubt), Tsujii plays with a heightened sensitivity and a keen intuition, a complete lack of self consciousness and courage but intelligence and heart. He began with brisk, bold strokes that quickly mellows into bittersweet wistful tones, catching you off guard with his phrasing that is simultaneously sudden and fearless. Tsujii’s playing is not perhaps as finessed as other pianists (including co-winner Haochen Zhang who excelled in this arena), but there is something so unique about his playing that is spectacular, heartbreaking, and so moving.

Tsujii’s playing matches well with the style of the Takacs Quartet, playing with a lot of heart and soul, and the collaboration brought out the best in both parties. Listening to this piece, it was difficult to remember the last time I heard Schumann so full of life, and so vibrant.

Mondavi Arts

Review: 2011 San Francisco Symphony and Chorus

Bach’s Mass in b Minor, BWV 232

San Francisco Symphony, image provided by the Mondavi Center

Yesterday, San Francisco Symphony came eastward for a second performance this year at the Mondavi Center, adding to the festivity of the occasion with the San Francisco Chorus in tow. The evening was dedicated to performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in b Minor conducted by Ragnar Bohlin.

First, a few words on the San Francisco Chorus (a group I’d only heard once before with the weird and tremendous Ligeti’s Requiem). The group was established in 1972 at the request of the symphony’s music director at the time, Seiji Ozawa. The 142 member chorus gives at least 26 performances each season, and is currently made up of 30 professionals and 112 volunteer singers (does this surprise anybody? I just assumed they were all professionals, but I was wrong).

Bach’s Mass in b Minor is considered a seminal piece in classical music, sacred music in particular. Lasting nearly two hours, it’s made up of different sections with a number of songs in each section. Bach first started writing parts of it in 1724 and finished writing the whole score in the late 1740s. Upon my first viewing of this piece, the different songs (gorgeous in itself) felt a little disjointed, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Bach had written sections of it in different times. It’s a study of contrasts, going from grandiose orchestral resonances with the full chorus to small chamber ensembles with a solo or duet voice. The piece is cloaked in somber tones but with wonderful swells of hope throughout. It’s a piece that I felt needed more of my time to experience and to absorb fully, but the combination of the music and the subject matter was awe-inspiring.

The performance of Bach’s Mass in b Minor was a wonderfully balanced performance. The symphony was a smaller ensemble for this performance with the appearance of several baroque instruments (including the keyboard instrument (anybody know the name?) and the oboe d’amore (thanks for the tip, Patty!)), playing with a pointed but a discriminating presence. The large choral singing was nuanced and expressive, and the vocal soloists were a particular highlight. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor sang in warm, lush tones, tenor Nicholas Phan with a wistful quality wrapped in passion, and bass-baritone Shenyang with a unique elegance and precision that appearto be rare qualities in bass-baritone voices.  Soprano Ingela Bohlin’s voice didn’t appear to project very well to where I was sitting, but blended in lovely ways in her duet with mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims.

Some may find the length of the work to be difficult to sit through. But this baroque masterpiece is beautifully served by the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Chorus, a testament to the power of the sounds of beauty and faith to last through the centuries.

For clips of Bach’s Mass in b Minor, check out Patty’s blog entry, here. San Francisco Symphony and Chorus continue their performance of Bach’s Mass in b Minor this weekend at their home symphony hall at the Davies. Check it out on their website including a very cool podcast to learn more about the work.

Mondavi Arts

2011 Hot Air Music Festival at the San Francisco Conservatory

The beautiful venue at the San Francisco Conservatory. © Saturday Matinee.

On Sunday, I stopped by the student-run Hot Air Music Festival at the beautiful San Francisco Conservatory. Only in its second year, the festival featured an ambitious all-day program featuring mostly living composers (with only one piece by a deceased composer). As a newbie to modern music, I went into the festival with some trepidation. It’s difficult for someone such as myself who grew up with Bach and Beethoven; most of modern music is still alien to me. My naive impression is that it seems awfully conceptual (e.g. John Cage), with irony being a common theme. I feel like I don’t understand a lot of it, and enjoyment of it isn’t even in the picture when I listen to modern music for the most part as I’m still trying to figure it out. Despite this, I was willing to be open minded and was pleasantly surprised by the result.

I was only able to attend one hour of the event (7 – 8 PM), but it was a lively one. The audience was refreshingly casual with people moving freely in and out, and I counted about three children within view. The first piece of the hour was Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union. The piece was prefaced with an enthusiastic introduction, describing that the piece is written for any number of loud, dissonant instruments. The speaker announced that he is a guitar player but will be playing a very poorly tuned violin. For someone nervous about modern music, there really couldn’t have been a scarier introduction. The piece started with two violins, playing dissonant notes but in precise syncopated rhythms, driving and insistent. One by one, a musician walks casually onstage, picks up an instrument, and joins in. A marimba player, a vibraphone player – the sound builds, with different colors added with different instruments, maintaining the same rhythm in unison. Two more violinists join in, a cello player, an accordion player, electric bass, two trombones, and a piano player. One of the violinists switch to piano. A violinist’s shoulder rest drops to the ground, and he bends down to pick it up and continues where he left off. Was this written in the music? We’ll never know.

In all, there was an exciting anticipation for what would happen next, both in the rhythmic variations and who would walk on next, and yes, the result was fascinating. The playing was energetic and bright, and the climax was impressive, rollicking and formidable. I wondered  how this would sound on a huge orchestral group or a larger group of instruments; it must be an even more awesome sound and sight.

My date wondered if the composer was expressing his opinion of workers unions as a group of drunk people. Who knows.

The hour ended with Steve Reich’s Six Pianos. The background of a repetitive running motif highlighted slight rhythmic variations, with the sound of six pianos filling the auditorium. The piece was played with tenacity, and I spotted a few heads in the audience rockin’ out to the music.

It was a brilliant display of musicianship, especially amongst such young musicians. And, it was fun! The atmosphere was an easy one for newbies and modern music fans alike. One of the highlights for me however, was catching a few minutes of the end of the Super Bowl before the concert. It was aired in German through an internet feed on a projector in a room full of conservatory students talking about modern music. It was amusing and surreal.

Hot Air Music Festival website

Review: 2010 San Francisco Symphony at the Mondavi Center

Principal clarinet for the San Francisco Symphony Carey Bell

The San Francisco Symphony brought their “French Classics Program with MTT” to the Mondavi Center last night for their annual trek to the Mondavi Center. The wife of late Robert Mondavi, Margrit Mondavi, made her enthusiastic appearance as she waved to the audience that sells out every year for this special annual concert. There was this special appreciation in the air for a world-class symphony coming this far out east to play for an audience who only gets an opportunity to hear them once a year.

Michael Tilson Thomas was the debonair leader in directing a program of works by Ravel, Debussy, and Berlioz. Although I wouldn’t classify these pieces as “classics”, the theme of an all-French program seems like a good one with an obvious common thread. However, the presented pieces sounded very similar to my ears. No wonder, as the pieces were written within 1839 – 1909, with the first half of the program ranging from works written within 20 years, from 1809 – 1909. The first half of the concert sounded especially similar in style. Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole was a mixed bag of influences, with dissonance, Spanish and jazz influences, enshrouded in mystery and sudden contrasts. Debussy’s Premiere Rapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra and Fantasisie for Piano and Orchestra were all studies of singing, shimmery melodies and sharp contrasts, where lush melodies with longing dissonances prevailed. By the time that pianist Jean-Frederic Neuburger took the stage in the Fantaisie, my ears had grown so used to the style that it was hard not to think of the first half of the concert as one long piece. Berlioz’s Scenes forRomeo et Juliette, Op. 17, was a nice welcome change after the intermission, with more heft and angst and gorgeous melodies, with an especially lovely hymn in the violas and cello section. It did seem to drag on a bit, however, and pacing appeared to be a problem throughout the whole concert especially in the slow sections.

Despite a program that was less varied than I liked, it was clear that this was a very special night. The symphony has never sounded better, playing with a thrilling sense of energy and life. If there’s one thing that Michael Tilson Thomas does well, he does loud, rollicking sections with relish and a great sense of fun. Carey Bell is a gem, one of San Francisco’s best. Although the Debussy piece wasn’t the best showcase for his talents, Bell caught everyone’s attention with breathless control and lively virtuosity. His sense of unity with the orchestra clearly comes from a place of familiarity with the group. Pianist Jean-Frederic Neuburger played with a pleasing brightness, holding his own above the sounds of the orchestra.

The audience clearly appreciated the presence of an amazing orchestra coming out to tour at the Mondavi Center, with symphony members reaching out to the community earlier in the day to teach master classes at the university and high school orchestras. It’s a special relationship with the symphony and the Mondavi Center that I hope will only get stronger in the future.

The concert plays through Sunday back in San Francisco at the Davies Symphony Hall. Click here for more information.

San Francisco Symphony and its audience

An interesting quote from San Francisco Symphony conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, about the symphony listening experience from the audience point of view (via the Wall Street Journal).

“In some places, there is a certain ritualistic aspect to it. The audience expects to have a certain kind of experience, which perhaps reaffirms certain nice and comfortable things from their life. The idea that you can shake it up a bit at the concert or experience something new is very particular to this area and this audience.”

I know that Thomas was trying to say that Bay area audiences are different, and perhaps the Bay area is better than most places, but I still see a lot of both groups of people at the symphony.

San Francisco Symphony’s summer season ends this weekend with a bang with a really fun program, starting with John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Chris Noth (“Mr. Big”) narrating Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, the original jazz band version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (super cool), and a collaboration with the UC Berkeley Marching Band for the hit Broadway tune “Seventy-Six Trombones”. Come early for music and dancing with the Martini Brothers, plus desserts and specialty drinks in the lobby. For more information, click here.

Review: San Francisco Symphony and Duncan Sheik’s Whisper House

It was a merging of two worlds at the San Francisco Symphony. In a daring program led by conductor Edwin Outwater, the headliner for the show was a suite from Duncan Sheik’s new musical Whisper House, arranged for orchestra by Simon Hale. Following the immense Tony award-winning success of Spring Awakening, this is Sheik’s second Broadway musical that recently played at the Old Globe in San Diego with lots of early buzz.

It’s easy to see how this suite could easily see the music backing a “a hybrid alt-rock concert-psychological ghost story” of ghosts telling a little boy about life and love through evocative stories both startling and touching. Atonal influences are sprinkled throughout, lending an eery tension and wavering longing. Duncan Sheik himself sang, as well as Holly Brook in ethereal tones.

As an element of a big picture, this score might work successfully in creating a compelling theatrical atmosphere. However in this setting, Sheik’s Whisper House was a bit of a fish out of water. Unfairly taken out of context, it was disorienting without a plotline as to what was going on and who the characters were as the audience was plunged into the songs with barely any warning.

It’s difficult to be scared of ghosts in bright house lights, which were on to allow for the audience to read the lyrics in the program, as the first song warns, “We’re here to tell you/ghosts are here for good/and if it doesn’t terrify you/it should!”. Also, without a sweeping storyline or characters you care about, lyrics such as “Steel your heart/Life is hard/Never easy/Believe me” fell a bit flat. Without the dramatic pull of a full production, it’s a bit inconclusive if the music is enough to stand on its own.

However, the orchestra provided a shroud of atmospheric sound that is never heard in a Broadway stage these days. The richness of Hale’s orchestration was easy to get lost in, and Sheik’s evocative melodies and themes are heart-tugging in a poignant deja vu sort of way. Sheik’s music encompasses a broad spectrum of influences that makes his vision for Broadway so visionary. Even though this might not have been the best setting for his music, it still made me curious about the musical itself.

Vivier’s Zipangu was the odd piece in the program, an experimental piece written in 1980 for a small string ensemble. Amidst the grating dissonance and unearthly harmonics, there is a hazy outline of variations on a theme and the semblance of a meandering development as Vivier explores the range of sounds that the strings have to offer, from string plucking to slides. An uneasy tension prevails, and is never quite resolved. It’s a piece that I’d picture in a smaller venue, played loudly and unapologetically, maybe at a smoky underground speakeasy or accompanying a Merce Cunningham dance performance.

Edwin Outwater led the San Francisco Symphony with admirable restraint. Gounod’s Ballet Music from Faust was refreshingly lacking in pretension, shaped

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with gentle dynamics in an interpretation that allowed the music to shine. Outwater coaxed a remarkable clarity and articulation from the orchestra. Even in the crowded stage that played Poulenc’s densely layered Suite from Les Biches, the orchestra played as one in a witty and exhilarating interpretation.

Even if the evening wasn’t to your taste, the spirit of adventure in the San Francisco Symphony is admirable and challenging. This new direction of welcoming artists outside the classical music world was also successful at recruiting a large percentage of younger people in the audience, the largest percentage of under 30′s that I’d seen in a long time.

San Francisco Symphony website

The Berkeley New Music Project

A few weeks ago, I had seen this

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on Reverberate Hills, and so I recognized this group when I ran into them at the ferry building in San Francisco. It was both PR and fundraising rolled into one, as they sang (with remarkable harmony and pitch) Christmas carols in the pre-Christmas season. My date was handed the note explaining their group which I wasn’t able to see, but you can read more on Patrick’s blog in the link above.

Some blurry photos I snapped. Click to enlarge.

How much new music can a dollar buy?

The increase in student fees and other cuts at the UC system in California are appalling, and something has GOT to change.

As on Reverberate Hills, donations can be made to:

Department of Music
University of California, Berkeley
104 Morrison Hall #1200
Berkeley, CA 94720-1200
(Specify “Berkeley New Music Project”)

San Francisco Symphony’s “my classic Russian composers”

Last week, the San Francisco Symphony took on an international flair with their all-Russian Summer & the City program, called “my classic Russian composers”. Conductor James Gaffigan led the symphony in an outpour of emotion from the hearts of Russian composers. The stage was filled with more of the familiar faces of the SF Symphony for the larger orchestra that this romantic program required. But as Mike astutely observed in a comment in my earlier entry, the one-rehearsal-per-performance format didn’t serve this program in its best light. Despite its visible cracks, it was a fun concert for both my symphony newbie friend and I.

The evening opened with Mussorgsky’s fiery A Night on Bald Mountain. This piece narrates a story of evil spirits and their festivities and ends with church bells that break up the madness and ends with hope and peace. Made famous by Disney’s Fantasia, the SF Symphony’s version was a welcome version vastly different from the ostentatious Disney version. This performance strayed more to the careful and muted spectrum especially in the beginning until the horns came blaring in an impressive climax of the evil spirited orgy. The effect was deliciously messy, yet never stridently so.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto followed, with soloist Orion Weiss. Weiss made a huge impression when I saw him last year with the Marin Symphony in the Beethoven concerto with a highly individual and daring performance. In this performance, Weiss started out well with a big, round sound. However, he lost his footing in a technical run early in the first movement that also briefly lost the orchestra, and the piece never recovered. Weiss seemed to lose his confidence, and the volume range remained limited for the rest of the performance, and at times it was difficult to hear. The hesitant pace lagged, momentum fizzled. Overall, I found it an uneven performance with unclear intent. I did find myself wishing though that the piano sounded more off-the-cuff intense and spontaneous rather than awash in quiet introspection that swallowed itself whole. Still, a thoughtful and sensitive performer, Weiss infused a refreshing lean and elegant air to the extravagantly romantic concerto, and there were flashes of pure beauty. Clearly this was an incident that’s chalked up to limited rehearsal time and youth, and not an accurate reflection of his obvious musical talent.

The night ended with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherazade loosely based on the story of the Arabian Nights, which was my favorite piece of the night. The orchestra seemed to let go and let fly with lush melodies and warmth. For a few blissful moments, the music depicted hot desert perfumed air under an expansive starry sky with a hint of magic.

Other reviews:

San Francisco Symphony