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Music review: San Francisco Symphony opens its June festival

June 17, 2011 |  1:13 pm

YujaWang4SFSJUNE162011-byKristenLoken June is festival month in the Bay Area. Michael Tilson Thomas’ San Francisco Symphony typically puts on three programs of special programming. San Francisco Opera normally has three operas in repertory (once in a while with something unusual). Across the bay, UC Berkeley hosts an early music festival every other year.

This June, though, is a little different. For one thing, the sun is shining. For another, S.F. Opera is presenting a new “Ring” cycle, and Wagner has -- as you may recall from the Los Angeles Opera “Ring” cycles last June -- a way of sucking all the oxygen from any arts scene. The first of three cycles directed by Francesca Zambello began on Tuesday. We will have a report on it next week.

Over at Berkeley, the early musickers have an off-year, and new is taking the place of old. Cal Performances has now partnered with the Ojai Music Festival. On Saturday night, it will stage a repeat of George Crumb’s “The Winds of Destiny” in the Peter Sellars production, staring Dawn Upshaw, that was the sensation of Ojai last weekend.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Symphony has decided not to try to compete, and maybe not even to acknowledge that it’s June. This year, the orchestra’s festival is an abbreviated two weeks, and it began Thursday night in Davies Symphony Hall, five days before the summer solstice, with what might have made an ideal New Year’s Eve program. The second half was a concert performance of the third act of Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake.”

That is not to say that the orchestra lacks ambition. It is just back from a European tour, where it played Mahler in many of the best halls. The latest in Tilson Thomas’ S.F. Symphony video series, “Keeping Score,” is devoted to Mahler. Just out on DVD, it will be broadcast on PBS later this month. Next season is the orchestra’s centennial and there will be much of note. A couple of firsts in March will be Jessye Norman singing John Cage and Emanuel Ax appearing as soloist in Morton Feldman’s Piano Concerto!

As for Thursday’s program, it had a sort of theme hovering around Eastern European folk music and dance. The first half was devoted to Bartók, opening with the brief, flavorful “Romanian Folk Dances,” followed by the Hungarian composer’s Second Piano Concerto, with Yuja Wang as soloist.

One of the most notable aspects of Tilson Thomas’ S.F. Symphony is the way he encourages individuality in the players. Bartók’s dances danced. The orchestra was unafraid to be rustic, free, alive to the moment, a little crude and genially in your face.

The Second Piano Concerto, on the other hand, had no choice but to be polished. The concerto is a showpiece, if a very difficult one for the orchestra as well as the soloist, and no small challenge for a listener who actually wants to take all the details in. Bartók may have thought he was writing for a mainstream audience, but his ideas of mainstream in 1931 Budapest was Bach meets Modernism at the speed of light.

The 24-year-old Chinese pianist is vaulting up the superstar ladder. Her sleek purple gown gave her a femme fatale appearance Thursday, and the fluidity of her playing took the breath away. She dashed through the extraordinarily dense thickets of notes and roller-coaster runs with seemingly superhuman speed. Percussive passages may have belied petite elegance, but she never lost her cool.

In the most furious moments, the orchestra sounded out of breath. But the slow movement, when the strings play a hushed hymn, was the place for the rest of us to hold our breath. Here the playing was so otherworldly that the score sounded as though it were a report from another solar system.

Mainly though, this was a performance with fireworks. And fireworks continued right through “Swan Lake.” The ballet’s third act takes place in a ballroom and is without swans. In the middle are national dances, including a Hungarian one.

This performance was breezy, brassy, rhythmically tantalizing, Romantically effusive (especially in concertmaster Alexander Barantschik’s violin solo for the Russian Dance) and, often, downright jazzy.

Next week, Tilson Thomas gets serious with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.


Review: Yuja Wang, the next Chinese sensation

Music review: Dawn Upshaw, Peter Sellars and George Crumb in the 2011 Ojai Festival

-- Mark Swed, from San Francisco

Photo: Pianist Yuja Wang with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony Thursday night in Davies Symphony Hall. Credit: Kristen Loken/San Francisco Symphony.