Friday, October 7, 2011

Music I'm Listening to: Joshua Bell with Vasily Petrenko Conducting the San Francisco Symphony (October 6, 2011)

Last night I attended a concert featuring Joshua Bell with Vasily Petrenko conducting the San Francisco Symphony. The concert opened with Shostakovich's Festival Overture. According to the program, that was to be followed by Tchaikovsky's M├ęditation from Souvenir d'un lieu cher, and then Glazunov's Violin Concerto in A minor, both featuring Joshua Bell on violin, but the order of these two pieces was reversed--which was a good thing given that the short, romantic M├ęditation probably would have sounded anti-climactic following the Glazunov. After intermission, the Symphony performed Elgar's Symphony No. 1.

Vasily Petrenko was new to me, but I very much enjoyed his readings of the Shostakovich and the Glazunov pieces. Tall, thin, and with very long, expressive arms and hands, Petrenko looked sometimes like a large ocean-going bird gesturing with wings. At other times, during slow or delicate passages, his indications became something quite the opposite--minimalist (a slight nod of the head, a subtle gesture with one finger, or simply a look), but the performers seemed highly engaged and in top form throughout the concert. Petrenko--young, confident (almost cocky) was a pleasure to watch. According to the program notes, Petrenko has studied with Mariss Jansons, Yuri Temirkanoff, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, among others. He will become the Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra starting in the 2013-2014 season, but is currently Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orcehstra.

Shostakovich's Festival Overture is not one of my favorite pieces by that composer, but it's familiar and fun and rousing. It's not a bad way to open a concert, as it gets both the audience and the performers warmed up. Actually, it was a lot of fun to hear, even if it's not very challenging music to listen to (I'm not sure how the orchestra feels about playing it). The Tchaikovsky piece was not exactly my style either, but it was a lovely selection to show off the sound of Joshua Bell's violin, which is the 1713 Stradivarius known as "The Gibson."* This is the second time I've heard Bell play in person. It's almost enough just to listen to the tone of his instrument.... Also in the Glazunov, much of the pleasure was hearing the violin with the clarity of a live performance. I'm used to this concerto in the form of two rather old LPs in my collection, a Nathan Milstein record on Capitol, with William Steinberg conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (Captiol SP8382) and an RCA Gold Seal Heifetz recording (RCA Gold Seal AGL1-4929). The latter is rather worn and fuzzy. Petrenko seemed particularly good at accentuating the various accents in the orchestral part, especially toward the end of the final movement. His reading gave the whole thing a very attractive sparkle. I recently happened to hear what seemed to me a rather idiosyncratic but highly persuasive  performance of this concerto on the radio, with Gil Shaham playing the violin (it appears to be a Deutsche Grammophon recording with Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestra). I suppose it's time to acquire this concerto on CD. The Gil Shaham interpretation may be a good choice. Bell was given a warm standing ovation for both of his performances, but he wasn't sufficiently moved to play an encore.

After intermission, the Sympony played the Elgar piece, which I can't say I enjoyed a great deal. Petrenko succeeded in eliciting a crisp, energetic performance, but the music itself is rather repetitive and much longer than I'd say it needs to be to explore the ideas it presents. Simply put, it was dull and taxing. This is not Elgar at his best. I can't understand why the piece was chosen for a program of music that was otherwise Russian. Something Russian (and shorter) would have been more appropriate. Several people near me fell asleep. The audience was palpably restless by the end of the performance. That said, I very much enjoyed the evening just to hear Joshua Bell play the Glazunov concerto.

*For more about the violin, see my thoughts on one of Joshua Bell's 2010 performances with the San Francisco Symphony here.

[Update: I happened upon an online review of this concert today (November 26, 2011) by Jeff Dunn in "San Francisco Classical Voice." Dunn suggests the Elgar sounded so ponderous because of Petrenko's too-rigid tempos. While the work is undoubtedly rather long, it may have been unsuccessful in this case more because of the conducting than because of any fault in the music itself. I'll have to listen to this piece again....]

Photo of Vasily Petrenko by Mark McNulty, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

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