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SYMPHONY REVIEW
San Francisco Symphony / Thursday, May 23, 2013
David Robertson, conductor. Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano

Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin

FIVE FINGERS WITH THE STRENGTH OF TEN

by Steve Osborn
Thursday, May 23, 2013

"My name is David, and I'm going to be your conductor for this evening." With that corny but amusing opening line, guest conductor David Robertson introduced himself and the San Francisco Symphony to a less than full house at the Green Music Center on May 23. It was hard to understand why the place wasn't packed. The soloist, Marc-Andre Hamelin, is one of the top pianists in the world, and the program featured Gershwin's ever-popular "Rhapsody in Blue," along with two crowd-pleasers from Ravel: the Concerto for the Left Hand and "La Valse."

Maybe the opening piece, Elliott Carter's "Variations for Orchestra," is what kept them away. Written in 1955, the variations have all the characteristics of Carter's mature style: short, seemingly disconnected phrases; an abundance of dissonance; lack of anything hummable. Fifty years ago, those aspects may have turned off audiences, but these days they sound relatively tame. In truth, the performance on this occasion was lush, fluid and immensely rewarding.

Mr. Robertson clearly likes Carter, and he compared the composer's technique to the train of thought. "It's like the way we think," he said in his introduction: "Ideas jump off." As evidenced by the program notes, musicologists can have a field day picking apart Carter's formal structures, but the real strength of the piece lies with its impression on the listener. If your ears are open, there's a lot to hear. Beginning with short, pithy phrases from throughout the orchestra, the sound congeals into a kind of jagged unanimity, with notes scattered across several octaves at once.

Mr. Robertson kept all these disparate elements well under control, moving fluidly from one section to the next, occasionally using sweeping gestures to propel the Symphony forward. By the last of nine variations a palpable tension had been established, wonderfully resolved in the Allegro molto conclusion, complete with a fanfare from the brass and timpani.

After respectful applause and subsequent stage entry of a piano, Mr. Hamelin appeared with both arms seemingly intact to play Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand. The pianist alternately rested his right hand on his right knee or anchored it on the bench for particularly vigorous passages. He needed all the anchoring he could get, for his left hand shortly displayed itself as an anatomic marvel of tremendous power and agility. Leaning heavily on the pedal, he generated a phenomenal sound, more than equal to the Symphony's exertions.

Mr. Hamelin swayed gently with eyes closed as he played, seemingly inhabiting the music. On occasion he arched his fingers into a kind of claw and descended upon the keyboard like a diving falcon, ensnaring his prey with pinpoint accuracy. The melodies rang out and the articulation was superb. Though limited to only five digits, he wrapped the entire auditorium in a gossamer veil of sound. Most important, he etched the Ravel concerto, which can often seem muddy, into a surprisingly well-defined, coherent whole. It's not one of the great concertos, but it's close.

After intermission, the 52-year old Canadian artist returned to play "Rhapsody in Blue," which began with a startlingly good clarinet solo and equally great contributions from the trumpets. After the raucous orchestral buildup, Hamelin--using both hands--calmed everyone down with a delicate solo played with the utmost tenderness. As with the Ravel, he so inhabited the music that he gave the impression that he was making it up as he went along. Each phrase led inexorably into the next in a truly bewitching performance.

The effect of Hamelin's and the Symphony's playing was like hearing "Rhapsody in Blue" for the first time. All those United Airlines commercials were purged from the brain, replaced by a work of undeniable power and originality. The Rhapsody may be "in blue," but this performance drew from the entire spectrum.

Playing Ravel's "La Valse" might seem anticlimactic after the glories of Gershwin, but Mr. Robertson and the Symphony invested the performance with the same degree of panache, so the choice ultimately made sense.

"La Valse" begins almost as if under water, with muted sounds coming from all directions. The conductor unveiled them gradually, using supple but expressive motions. As the sound gained in intensity, he provoked sharp outbursts and then settled into a demonic but controlled frenzy. "La Valse," written in the wake of the First World War, is about as ironic as music gets, recasting the imperishably happy waltz motif into a dance of death. Mr. Robertson enacted this role with vigor, transforming himself into an expiring ballet dancer as he hurled his arms to and fro across the podium. The end arrived with a bang, followed by sustained applause.