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Recital
SLAM BANG SONORITY IN HAOCHEN ZHANG'S SCHROEDER RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Piano Competition winners are in ample supply, and it’s often a hit and miss proposition as to their sterling interpretative qualities. However, the quadrennial Van Cliburn Competition in Ft. Worth has continually produced top-level artists, and the 2009 winner Haochen Zhang proved a formidable per...
Symphony
FOREIGN AFFAIRS CHARACTERS OF THE BAROQUE
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, known as Akamus, played a Weill Hall concert March 12 in a program called "Foreign Affairs -Characters of the Baroque.” The ensemble, that began in 1984, has 15 musicians led by concert master Bernhard Forck. Attired in elegant black with red accents, ranging from tie...
Recital
MUSCULAR PIANISM DOMINATES MILL VALLEY CHAMBER SOCIETY RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Piano recitals since the beginning of the genre open with finger pieces - Scarlatti or Soler Sonatas, Bach, a Mendelssohn Prelude and Fugue or perhaps Mozart or Haydn. Sarah Daneshpour’s March 12 opening work at the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society series abruptly avoided the norm with the 10-minut...
Recital
NOVEL HAYDN AND SCHUMANN IN YARDEN'S OAKMONT RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, March 09, 2017
Israeli pianist Einav Yarden has been a frequent Sonoma County visitor, playing private recitals for Spring Lake Village and Concerts Grand, and twice performing for Music at Oakmont. The Berlin-based artist returned to Oakmont’s Berger Auditorium March 9 with a program that was neither for connois...
Chamber
CONSUMMATE ENSEMBLE FROM THE MIRÓ IN WEILL
by Sonia Tubridy and Nicki Bell
Sunday, March 05, 2017
A March 5 Weill hall audience of 350 leaned in to share an intimate musical space and to hear the Miró String Quartet’s sterling concert. Starting with Haydn's Op. 20, No. 4, the four musicians seemed to want listeners to be enveloped in their music. The Miró plays with the feat of being four dist...
Recital
BRILLIANT VIOLIN AND PIANO ARTISTRY CHARMS SCHROEDER HALL AUDIENCE
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 26, 2017
A tiny Schroeder Hall audience heard a flawless recital Feb. 26 by Yu-Chien Tseng, arguably the best recent local violin recital since Gil Shaham’s transversal of the complete Bach Suites in Weill and Frank Almond’s Oakmont recital in 2015. Muscular playing was the afternoon’s norm, and with pianis...
Chamber
MUSIC AND ART MELD IN ZUCKERMAN TRIO CONCERT
by Nicki Bell
Friday, February 24, 2017
A Feb. 24 Weill Hall concert by the Pinchas Zuckerman Trio juxtaposed formidable music making with palpable associations about visual art. Brahms’ C Minor "Sonatensatz” (Scherzo) is a short youthful work for violin and piano, and was an opening call to action. Lively and vigorous playing alternated...
Chamber
THREE BEETHOVEN TRIOS BEGUILE AUDIENCE IN FEB. 19 WEILL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 19, 2017
Chamber music concerts featuring one composer can be tricky, but the Han/Setzer/Finckel trio made a Feb. 19 Weill Hall audience of 500 hear and to a degree see the boundless creativity of Beethoven. The G Major Trio, Op. 1, No. 2, opened the afternoon’s Beethoven odyssey and one wonders why it is t...
Chamber
AUTHORITATIVE BARTOK HIGHLIGHTS TETZLAFF VIOLIN RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, February 18, 2017
Christian Tetzlaff’s Feb. 18 violin recital rolled along with lively and fresh readings of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert when the specter of Bartok’s granitic Second Sonata intervened. The sonic shock to the audience of 250 in Weill was palpable. Composed in 1923 the 20-minute two-movement work i...
Symphony
WHAT SOUND DO STAR-CROSSED LOVERS MAKE?
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, so the Santa Rosa Symphony feted the occasion by telling and retelling the story of Romeo and Juliet, a tale ever the more poignant during our era of stark divisions. The first telling was from Berlioz; the second from Prokofiev. In between was Brahms’ monu...
SYMPHONY REVIEW
San Francisco Symphony / Thursday, November 21, 2013
Semyon Bychkov, conductor. Till Fellner, piano

Conductor Semyon Bychkov

A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT

by Steve Osborn
Thursday, November 21, 2013

One way to get a free glass of wine is to buy a ticket to a San Francisco Symphony concert at the Green Music Center, wait for a dark and stormy night, then stroll into Weill Hall and behold a nearly empty stage, with only a solitary cellist tuning his instrument.

That's what happened on Thursday evening, Nov. 21, when the Symphony's buses were delayed on Highway 101 by a fallen tree and a massive traffic jam. Promptly at 8, a Symphony representative walked on stage and announced that the concert would be postponed until 8:30, at which point GMC Executive Director Larry Furukawa-Schlereth announced that everyone would get a free glass of wine. A mass exodus ensued.

The stormy night provided a fitting context for the eventual program, which did begin as promised. The first half offered the brooding Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24, one of his few concertos in a minor key (C minor), and perhaps his most introspective. Mozart's anguish then gave way in the second half to Richard Strauss's ebullient "An Alpine Symphony," a veritable avalanche of sound, complete with wind and thunder machines.

Austrian pianist Till Fellner played the role of Mozart, who premiered his C minor concerto in April 1786 to a presumably befuddled Viennese audience. Unlike almost all his other concertos, the C minor is neither happy, nor flashy, nor crowd-pleasing. It's also not so much a piano concerto as a sinfonia concertante for woodwinds, who are featured throughout the work.

Fellner is an exceedingly correct pianist. He sits ramrod-straight on the piano bench, with nary a wasted motion. When playing, his elbows are just slightly bent, but somehow his fingers act as spring-loaded triggers, striking the keys with the utmost precision and fortitude.

Gently urged forward by guest conductor Semyon Bychkov, a reduced band of Symphony players intoned the concerto's doleful introduction, which sounds like the beginning of a march to the scaffold. The tempo was luxuriant, the motion fluid, the texture polished. Upon entry, Fellner was a model of restraint, playing his line with the utmost precision and extolling the virtues of quietude. His only release came during the operatic cadenza, which he played to perfection.

The restraint continued into the second movement, where Fellner offered an almost staccato approach to the deceptively simple melody (one note, then two, then three ascending, then five descending) that recurs throughout the Rondo form. His touch was feather-light, his timing impeccable.

The tempo was again luxurious in the finale, a set of variations with occasional glimpses of a major key within an ultimately triumphant minor mode. Fellner's left hand was particularly strong in bringing out the grim rhythms and moods that dominate the work. At the end, the applause from the nearly full house was subdued, without the customary ovation--but then it's hard to imagine anyone jumping up and cheering after such a somber work.

The ovation came at the end of the program, after an impassioned reading of Richard Strauss's "Alpine Symphony," the last in his long series of tone poems. The term "symphony" is actually a misnomer in this case because the work is just one long movement with 22 separate episodes, with little of the thematic development that one encounters in a typical symphony. Instead, it's all about painting pictures with sound.

Strauss works on a massive canvas with an inordinate number of brushes and colors. His score calls for about 130 players on a stupefying array of instruments, including not only the aforementioned wind and thunder machines, but also a heckelphone (bass oboe), four Wagner horns, innumerable percussion instruments, an organ, two harps and an offstage brass ensemble.

Keeping this menagerie under control is more than a challenge, but Bychkov seemed utterly unperturbed. He kept his feet firmly planted on the podium, compelling the orchestra to do his bidding through graceful movements of his baton and occasional shakes of his curly hair. The low, slow beginning ("Night") seemed almost frozen, with the violins barely moving their bows. In time, this gave way to a massive crescendo ("Sunrise") that threatened to break the windows.

And so it went throughout the misnamed symphony. Each of the 22 episodes came into being, offered its specific sonic image ("At the Waterfall," "On Flowering Meadows," "On the Glacier"), then either faded out or butted heads with the next. Within the episodes, the sound was often shimmering, iridescent and luminous, the spectacular result of Strauss's finely crafted orchestration.

Inevitably, the climax came toward the end, with a thoroughly convincing "Thunderstorm and Tempest." Everyone on stage played at top volume, and the percussionist manning the wind machine nearly tore his arm out of its socket while winding the contraption around and around. This prodigious display of force gradually morphed into a truly magical section beginning with the organ invoking the blessed silence of a church, followed by magisterial and gradually waning tones from the rest of the mighty ensemble. At the end, Bychkov held his hands aloft for a long moment before summoning the thunderous applause.