Cristian Măcelaru
Cristian Măcelaru leads the SF Symphony | Credit: Stefan Cohen

I can’t imagine sitting down to write a first symphony. How to begin: like Beethoven, with a joke? Like Brahms, embodying the pain of countless false starts?

Shostakovich’s First drops us into a series of episodes: a dirge, a frenzied dance, drab stillness. It’s a bingo board of the composer’s mature style. This was his conservatory graduation piece, and it’s astonishing that he was so fully formed at 19 years old.

Fully formed, but not played out. Blessedly, Cristian Măcelaru, conducting the San Francisco Symphony on Sunday, sidestepped the “caricaturization” of Shostakovich’s style — everything sarcastic and grotesque — we often see.

Richness of tone made the first movement’s waltz actually elegant, and the duet of oboist Eugene Izotov and cellist Rainer Eudeikis gave the beautiful, serious slow movement a special pathos. Here, rather than tossing off the central fanfare motif, as is more common, Măcelaru held each iteration close with a touching heaviness of heart. In fact, the last movement’s bare-it-all melodies share a common ancestor with Tchaikovsky. The music is so sincere, it hurts to listen to, a relief when the final thrust comes. This scope, in just half an hour — it’s one hell of a senior project.

Russ de Luna
Russ de Luna soloes with the SF Symphony in the U.S. premiere of Outi Tarkiainen’s Milky Ways | Credit: Stefan Cohen

And what about the project of the solo concerto? I was raised on the romantic concerto, the hero’s journey, but today, things are more egalitarian. The soloist still gets top billing but often doesn’t especially stand out.

This self-abnegation fits the premise of Outi Tarkiainen’s new work for English horn (the SF Symphony’s stellar Russ de Luna): It’s a concerto about breastfeeding. The soloist of Milky Ways keeps the piece alive, but much of the time, his individual voice is diluted in the wash.

And it is mostly a wash — like those first few weeks of motherhood, I suppose. Still, there are a few Kodak moments: the transparent flutters at the end of the first movement, the celesta’s tender windup lullaby in the third. In one inventive episode, de Luna calls the shots in an intricate call-and-response, his own part tiny and insignificant and still the center of the universe.

Less earnest, but more fun, were the two selections from Blues Symphony, the first large-scale orchestral piece by jazz giant Wynton Marsalis. The jaunty “Reconstruction Rag,” all but an outtake from An American in Paris, is a magnificent saunter. The daring offbeat hits in “Big City Breaks” beg for an ensemble of dancers dipping dangerously.

Cristian Măcelaru
Cristian Măcelaru with the SF Symphony | Credit: Stefan Cohen

Măcelaru has long championed the work — he programmed it at the Cabrillo Festival in 2019 — even through Marsalis’ own doubts. I wonder about the medium. Moving from small ensemble to symphony orchestra, some of Marsalis’s writing gets lost in translation. The unison string licks, for example, aren’t the thing. Playing them is a thankless job with an effect like a single cup of confetti (what’s the point?). Better is the spangling soft-shoe, the sumptuous line that cascades down the sections like a silk scarf. This music may not need a full symphony, but it sure is grand to be able to afford one.