San Francisco Symphony — Adventure, Dissonance, and Control.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson

Last night in Davies Hall we enjoyed a thrilling concert featuring Steven Stucky’s Jeu de timbres, Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin,” and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor. We heard guest conductor Juraj Valcuha directing the San Francisco Symphony, Ragnar Bohlin directing the choir for a portion of the Bartók and Garrick Ohlsson as piano soloist in the Rachmaninoff Concerto. It was a night to remember and to treasure.

Although it was a piece originally written to be played as an encore, Jeu de timbres began the program with a jolt of high energy that set the tone for the rest of the concert. Meaning “Play of colors,” Jeu de timbres truly elicited a visual response, as Valcuha and the orchestra brought almost a film-score atmosphere to the hall. Ultimately, the piece drew a few early standing ovations and whistles, and it was noted that the glockenspiel player in particular seemed to be having a lot of fun.

Valcuha rode this wave of energy into “The Miraculous Mandarin,” which depicts a story of three tramps who force a girl to seduce men in order to steal their money. The piece begins with a dissonant swirl of confusion that progressively gathers more sinister power before retreating into a calm pianissimo. The orchestra achieved a unique effect of deceptive calm, as if those ravenous forces were laying in wait, representing the three tramps waiting for their victims. A repeating pattern emerges, beginning with a single English Horn passage  representing the girl’s seduction games, followed by a sudden burst of rhythmic hysteria to represent the tramps’ ambush. Valcuha and the Symphony cast this imagery so well that by the third repeat in the pattern, I actually felt as though I were trapped, single and forced into an association with violent thieves and all the evils they have adopted. After a wordless, ghostly choral phrase directed by Bohlin, the orchestra concluded with a energetic climax, depicting the arrhythmic chaos perfectly.

After the intermission, Ohlsson’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto introduced a nice change of pace from the dissonant manic hysteria of the Bartók. At the beginning of the Rachmaninoff, the orchestra blended so easily with the piano it created a strangely brooding mood while subsequently Ohlsson and Valcuha projected extraordinary brilliance and energy. Ohlsson himself was remarkably reserved as a pianist in his posture and body language — we observed no extraneous hand gestures or unnecessary body movements. His demeanor was always under control, and he let the music agonize for itself. He was like an omnipotent silhouette with a masterful touch that fit perfectly with Rachmaninoff’s style, displaying an ability to sing a melody while bringing out the rippling beauty of supporting textures. Most memorably, he remained deliberately quiet while playing the main themes, which had the effect of making the variations much more exciting. I must finally add that the first climax in the middle of the first movement is by far the best rendition I have ever heard, live or recorded.

After his riveting performance, Ohlsson ended the evening with an encore, Debussy’s Clair de lune, sending us all home hoping to dream of this concert and to hear the marvelous music over again.

End

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