Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili
“Unreal,” I kept saying to myself. Just as the orchestra began its first piece, Scriabin’s Rêverie, everything felt dreamlike—as though I were gently lifted out of my seat and washed around in a smooth, color-changing lake of tones. The experience was completely unexpected, since I had expected Rachmaninoff’s thrilling Second Concerto to be the main treat, with the Rêverie as a minor appetizer. How wrong I was. I had heard the Rêverie once before on a CD and thought nothing more about it, except its lack of a totally memorable melody and its difficult-to-follow atonal structure.
However, the experience of hearing it on CD was nothing at all like the experience of hearing it played live by the San Francisco Symphony. Suddenly, the need for straightforward melody and simple chord progression, which largely characterizes my generation’s perception of music, evaporated as I let the music of this post Romantic composer take me for a magical ride. It was the perfect opener of a great program, and when it ended I could sense a healthy pride emanating from the orchestra and its conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, as though through this piece they had said, “Yes, this is the art we are capable of, and you are truly in for a treat this evening.”
Then began my first experience of hearing a live performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, one of my favorite works I first heard eight years ago in a Sviatoslav Richter recording. Once again, hearing the concerto in a concert hall was very different from hearing it on CD. Every aspect of the performance was completely thrilling as Jurowski drew pure perfection out of the orchestra and pianist Khatia Buniatishvili exerted her entire being into both the tender and the more powerful passages with her trademark hair-flips of passion.
The real treat, however, was the performance of Prokofiev’s score for the film “Ivan the Terrible” (the Atovmyan arrangement with chorus, which was a premiere performance on this occasion). Not being familiar with many of Prokofiev’s works, I was not sure what to expect. Since mere words cannot accurately describe my experience with the San Francisco Symphony’s final performance of the evening, I will simply state this: after the performance my date and I immediately went home, searched for “Ivan the Terrible” on YouTube, and read the accompanying musical score online as we listened to it for a second time that evening.
Of course—following the theme of this review—listening to a soundtrack online is nothing like hearing it live, for the San Francisco Symphony performance was phenomenally brilliant. “Ivan the Terrible” seemed to be the mother of all film scores, and it became obvious to me that many subsequent composers of film music must have looked at the greatness of Prokofiev’s colossal work for inspiration. The passages inspiring fear and dread that accompany scenes, such as the introduction of evil villains in Disney movies may have been influenced by “Ivan the Terrible” to depict evil. Passages inspiring awe and wonder accompanying scenes such as the arrival of superheroes may have looked to “Ivan the Terrible” for its awe and wonder, and the passages of joy that accompany scenes such as Harry Potter’s first entrance to Hogwarts must have looked to “Ivan the Terrible” for its joy.
And to have experienced all of this at the San Francisco Symphony was an experience I will remember for a long time. Sometimes the performance was so surreal I found myself repeatedly wondering, “How is this even happening right now?” I was awestruck, and so was my date. I saw complete bewilderment in her face as she responded to the brilliance performance of the chorus, the mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba, and the baritone Andrey Breus. At one point I saw her mouthing the words, “How in the world is she doing that?” during one of Zaremba’s solos.
Needless to say, through the extraordinary experience of hearing the San Francisco Symphony and its guest soloists, my appreciation for Scriabin and Prokofiev expanded dramatically — while the affection I feel for my beloved Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto was enhanced tremendously.