Last night the San Francisco Symphony presented a program of 20th century music of very different styles under the leadership of the young (born 1976) Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko. The program began with Arvo Pärt’s 1977 composition Fratres. Pärt has reworked this piece many times; the San Franciscans played the 1991 version. The basic structure of work is simple. It starts with percussion followed by a four note segment, then a six, and finally eight notes. An inversion of the notes follows and then the percussion returns. This repeats for about 10 minutes and then ends. The effect is hypnotic and quite moving. Petrenko conducted to great effect and his orchestra played to perfection.
I haven’t heard this orchestra for decades; but some time between then and now it has become one of the world’s great ensembles. Its strings are rich, its breath instruments flawless, and its percussion precise and when required – overwhelming.
The program’s first half concluded with Bela Bartók’s valedictory third piano concerto . Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was the soloist. Like virtually everything Bartók wrote the work is a masterpiece. Especially moving is its second movement which takes as its inspiration the slow movement of Beethoven’s opus 132 string quartet. Bavouzet is superb player who handled the contemplative and virtuosic parts of the concerto with equal facility. His playing is delicate, precise, and when needed emphatic. He gave the piece all it required. Petrenko was a sympathetic colleague. The orchestra played very well. The result was a full realization of this work’s true greatness.
The second half of the program can be summed in three words – orchestration, orchestration, and orchestration. Make that six words – more orchestration, orchestration, and orchestration. There were two of Ottorino Respighi’s Roman tone poems – The Fountains of Rome and the Pines of Rome. I’m doing Respighi a disservice by focusing on his mastery of orchestral color because there’s more to these pieces than the incredible range of sound a great symphony orchestra can make when playing the work of someone who has completely conquered the craft of orchestration. Nevertheless, Respighi raised orchestration beyond craft the the level of art.
Maestro Petrenko brought the orchestra to a blaze of sound that brought the audience to a frenzy of excitement at the conclusion of the second tone poem – The Pines of the Appian Way. He had horns and trumpets on both side of the seats that are above and around the hall’s stage. Mr Petrenko tends to have a serious mien most of the time, but by the time the last trumpet and cymbals had sounded he was smiling. It wasn’t just the thunderous conclusion that was played well, all of the two symphonic studies were brilliantly performed by an orchestra that has fully mastered its craft. The same nightingale that always concludes the Pines of the Janiculum sounded as glorious as ever. A wonderful evening from its restrained start to its tumultuous conclusion.