Friday, March 2, 2012

Music I'm Listening To: Charles Dutoit Conducts the San Francisco Symphony, Arabella Steinbacher Soloist (March 1, 2012)

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing one of the best concerts I've heard in years. Guest conductor Charles Dutoit led the San Francisco Symphony in the first of three concerts featuring soloist Arabella Steinbacher playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Also on the program were Stravinsky's Le Chant du Rossignol and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. The program will be repeated tonight, Friday March 2 and again on Saturday, March 3.

The concert opened with a clean, crisp rendition of Le Chant du Rossignol. The performers and the conductor seemed wonderfully connected from the outset. Dutoit conveyed his thoughts with the subtlest of movements--sometimes just by changing his position on the podium, sometimes with an arched eyebrow or with a smile and a nod. A fourth-row seat made it easy to see him work.

After intermission, I switched to an empty seat at the back of the first floor, thinking it would be more interesting to hear and see the Bartok with a full view of the players. The more distant seat made it easy to watch themes as they moved from section to section--and the sound is more balanced from such a seat. I thoroughly enjoyed the Bartok. Dutoit seemed to bring out the best in the performers. As is often the case in San Francisco, the woodwinds were outstanding. The oboe, in particular, has a lot to do in this piece.

The highlight, however, was Steinbacher playing the Tchaikovsky. I very much wanted to hear her again, having attended her debut concert with the San Francisco Symphony, in March last year, with conductor Herbert Blomstedt. While that performance was solid, it was really the CD I purchased at halftime that evening that opened my eyes to the talents of Ms. Steinbacher. Her recording of the Bartok Violin Concerto No. 2 is wonderful--and now among my favorites (Pentatone Classics, PTC 5186 350). I had high hopes for a strong performance last night, and that's what we got.

After the first movement, the audience burst into applause. The Tchaikovsky concerto easily persuades those that don't know it well that it's over when in reality it's just getting up a good head of steam, but I got the feeling that a good measure of the applause was spontaneous and coming from people that knew very well that only the first movement had ended. They simply wanted to show their appreciation. And why not? It was a luscious but beautifully controlled performance. Despite a gritty throatiness to her violin in the mid-register (which I rather like; Ms. Steinbacher plays the "Booth" Stradivarius of 1716, on loan from its owner, the Nippon Music Foundation), the sweetest parts of the concerto sounded wonderfully sweet without ever becoming maudlin. Ms. Steinbacher gave the impression of being in complete control. Her phrasing was self-assured and distinctive without being idiosyncratic. The connection between the soloist and the orchestra seemed especially tight. Dutoit masterfully kept the balance about as nearly perfect as I can imagine. This was one of the best live--or recorded--performances I've ever heard of the piece. It was greeted with an extended standing ovation at its conclusion.

Memorable. I wish I could go again tonight and tomorrow. I look forward to following Ms. Steinbacher's career over many years in the future, and I hope she comes to San Francisco often.

[Photographs of Arabella Steinbacher and Charles Dutoit courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.]

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