Wednesday night’s program opened with the brief, buoyant Radial Play local 29-year-old composer Samuel Adams. This miniature orchestral study was originally written for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. Particularly notable was the prominent and rhythmically complex two-harp part, and the “pitchless exhales” from the brass, which at times gave the impression that the orchestra was a living, breathing entity. Full of short gestures and well played, the piece zipped by. It was pleasant, original, and fun, but did not make a substantive intellectual or emotional impression.
Next on the program was Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K. 364. I have usually found Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony to be fine, charismatic interpreters of Mozart and this was no exception. The soloists were concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, and principal violist Jonathan Vinocour. In particular, Barantschik’s playing generated a feeling of effortless power, and his rich tone yielded passages of great expressivity and wit. Vinocour was a worthy partner, and though his tone was somewhat less polished, his playing was full of character.
After a slightly shaky beginning, it became clear that the ensemble playing, particularly between the two soloists, was truly on another level. They visibly breathed and swayed in tandem. Musically, their back-and-forth passages in the solemn slow movement were heart wrenching, and their tightly coordinated cadenzas were some of the best I have ever heard. The orchestra provided a warm, supportive, and richly colored backdrop.
The big piece of the night was Bartok’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra. This was a true showpiece. Each section was given characteristic and virtuosic material in turns, with frequent duets and trios between different sections of the orchestra. These changes of character and instrumentation were often extremely rapid, and the orchestra showcased them to the maximum. The colors and dynamics were carefully crafted, with innumerable witty and arresting moments.
In certain places, the orchestra’s playing was also profound, for example, the climax of the slow movement, (which Bartok described as a “lugubrious death-song,”) was dramatically affecting, and the subsequent entrance of a highly sarcastic quotation from Shostakovich was full of irony. However, considering the dire circumstances of the piece’s composition—an unprecedented masterpiece from the midst of World War Two, full of quotations of European music, written on commission by a near-penniless composer as he lay dying of leukemia—I had the sense that this music could have been far more emotional than it was in this particular performance, and I wish they had maximized its potential to be more than just a showpiece.
However, one thing is certain: this is a virtuoso group. While it may be possible for such seasoned musicians to occasionally phone it in for performances of the standard repertoire, it was not so with the Bartok. It was a pleasure to hear them rise to the technical and musical challenge of such a complex piece, and to be reminded of what a world-class ensemble the San Francisco Symphony truly is.