Saturday, May 26, 2012

Music I'm Listening To: Hilary Hahn with Osmo Vänskä Conducting the San Francisco Symphony (May 25, 2012)

Last night Hilary Hahn joined guest conductor Osmo Vänskä and the San Francisco Symphony for what turned out to be a rather exhilarating evening of music. The concert opened with modern Finnish composer Kalevi Aho's one-movement Minea, a piece composed in 2008 on commission from the Minnesota Orchestra. Hahn was then soloist in Prokofieff's Violin Concerto No. 1. After intermission, the Symphony played the Shostakovich Symphony No. 6.

Minea, debuted by the Minnesota Orchestra in November 2009,  has not yet been released as a commercial recording. I heard it last night for the first time. The opening was memorable--a sustained tone held by many of the instruments on stage seemed to float over odd sounds produced on the brass instruments that suggested waves beating against a beach. The woodwinds were very much present, especially the flutes and bassoons, fluttering in long scale-like passages using many half steps evocative of Arabic or Arab-influenced Spanish music--something oriental anyway. Minea kept building through the addition of more instruments and a faster tempo. Eventually, the very large percussion section seemed to take the lead. By the time the piece was coming to a climax it had something of the relentless forward motion of Ravel's Boléro. Every section of the orchestra seemed to get a turn, which reminded me of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Difficult to describe, but a lot of fun.

Hahn was wonderful in the Prokofieff. Although she seemed to lose her concentration momentarily near the beginning of the second movement, it was a brief lapse (if it wasn't my imagination), and the rest of the performance was fairly riveting. I especially enjoyed the way she very clearly articulated the raspy, chopped notes that punctuate the concerto and the wonderful metallic quality she gave to the sections played close to the bridge. Just watching her rather fierce concentration was mesmerizing. It helped to be in seat C106, virtually right in front of her, and no more than about three yards away. The whole orchestra sounded rather good from that position--with an unusual clarity for Davies Symphony Hall. Some of the members of the orchestra seemed as entranced as the audience. Hahn, meanwhile, while tightly focused, found time to look over her shoulder from time to time to take in the view of the orchestra, clearly enjoying herself--which seems to be her habit. I noticed her doing the same thing last time I heard her play live, when she performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in San Francisco, with James Gaffigan conducting, in November 2008. Last night Hahn wore a beautiful tapered black silk taffeta gown with starkly contrasting splashes of flowers and leaves in gold embroidery and appliqué. The performance was very warmly received.

Hahn delighted the audience by playing two encores, one modern, one not. She first played The Blue Curve of the Earth, which she herself commissioned from composer Tina Davidson--a scintillating piece of restrained energy with much use of pizzicato playing that I rather enjoyed. Hahn seemed almost apologetic when she took up her violin a second time, eliciting a laugh, this time to play a portion of the Bach A minor Sonata No. 2 for solo violin. "They gave me permission to play another one," she announced, and she played it very sweetly indeed. Hahn signed autographs after the performance. I asked her to date mine. She said matter-of-factly, "You'll have to tell me what the date is," no doubt a symptom of much travel.

I don't think I've heard a better reading of the Shostakovich. The ensemble was focused and tight. Vänskä elicited a memorable performance. All in all, perhaps the best concert this season--although I'd be hard-pressed to choose between this one and the December 8, 2011 performance with guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and soloist Leila Josefowicz. Happily, there's no need to choose.

Photo of Hilary Hahn by Peter Miller. Photo of Osmo Vänskä by Ann Marsden. Both photos courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony web site. 

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