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Fighting Dragons

June 24, 2008

A bit quixotically, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra's "Bon Voyage" program, offered Sunday in Davies Symphony Hall, took on three demanding symphonic monsters from early last century. Conductor Benjamin Shwartz's program turned out to be a little less than I had hoped for, but better than I had feared. Still, it left me amazed that these youthful players could manage so well in repertory where even experienced professionals normally fear to tread.
Bartók's Dance Suite (1923) opened the afternoon, followed by the Sibelius Violin Concerto (1905) in D Minor, Op. 47, with Jennifer Koh as soloist. Following intermission, the program was rounded off with a dozen excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet, Op. 64 (1936): "The Montagues and Capulets," "The Street Awakening," "Morning Dance," "The Quarrel," "The Fight," "The Balcony Scene," "Folk Dance," "Romeo and Mercutio," "Public Merrymaking," "Dance With Mandolins," "Dance of the Girls With Lilies," and "The Death of Tybalt."

The Prokofiev excerpts were, indeed, all that could be hoped for. The orchestra raged when called on, as in those thunderous dissonant chord clusters of the opening, or, by contrast, it virtually purred with warmth during the lyrically Romantic sections. The young performers' playing of "The Balcony Scene" was as beautiful in timbre and emotional communication as that which any top professional orchestra might provide.

On the other hand, the virtuosity of the strings and winds for the fast perpetual-motion music of the swordfight music proved breathtaking in its bravura uniformity of ensemble. Everything was there: intonation, bowing precision, fullness of volume, and apparent ease of execution as the segment whizzed along with outstanding vigor. Both visually as well as in sonic splendor, this was superb playing.

Shwartz also had the advantage of using the full original orchestration, rather than the reduced version of the concert suites drawn from the ballet. Thus, he had six horns rather than the four called for in the suites, as well as all four mandolins that Prokofiev asked for. (Those mandolins, by the way, were perfectly played by members of the viola and cello sections, showing how versatile and virtuosic these youths are.)

When I once asked conductor Antal Dorati why Bartók's masterful Dance Suite, his second most important orchestral composition, was so seldom programmed, he answered, "Because it's so damned difficult that it requires more rehearsal time than the Concerto for Orchestra. And, as it's half the length, one might as well go ahead and play the Concerto."

There's the pity of it. This fifth of Bartók's suites was his last. There are the two large symphonic suites, Opp. 3 and 4; the two ballet suites (from The Wooden Prince, Op. 13, and The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19); and finally the Dance Suite. The latter is the more complex of the lot. It consists of five dances, kneaded by a small set of variations on a gentle theme, marked ritornello: that is, a returning element that bridges the often barbaric, and occasionally ghoulish, dances into continuous play. Something of the sort may be familiar to many from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exposition, with its Promenade ritornello.
Sterling Playing, With a Caution
Many of the performances by the Youth Orchestra were sterling, although moments of lax ensemble work were heard in the trickier rhythmic sections. That was especially true during the opening dance, brimming with cross rhythms as it does. It didn't help that Shwartz was watching his score rather than the eyes of his musicians. As pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow once observed to the young Richard Strauss, "The score should be in your head, not your head in the score."

There are times in the piece when the players really needed watching. Indeed, it was said that Fritz Reiner conducted more music with his eyes than his baton. Much of the performance was crackerjack, but an additional rehearsal might have helped put the last kernels in place.

The profundity of the Sibelius Concerto sounded set aside for the sake of bravura, especially by violinist Koh. She tended to rush, sometimes dashing ahead of the orchestra. True, she played all the notes, and brilliantly, but now and then she squeezed the rhythmic values too tightly.

Then too, the finale was taken too quickly. It is, after all, marked "Allegro ma non troppo" (Fast, but not too much). What Koh played sounded like a virtuoso gush rather than the profoundly tragic bolero that Sibelius intended. The orchestra accompanied very well indeed, and clearly with more self-control than their soloist displayed.

As encores, Shwartz offered zesty performances of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, plus a section of Gershwin's Cuban Overture.

Now the prize-winning youth orchestra is off to perform in Europe, with concerts in Berlin, Munich, and Prague, besides appearances at three regional German festivals: the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival in Rostock, the Audi Summer Concerts in Ingolstadt, and the European Festival Week in Passau. Their violin soloist will be the Austrian virtuoso Julian Recline.

Besides the music on Sunday's farewell program, tour repertoire is to include John Adams' Lollapalooza, Chausson's Poème, and Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccio (both with Recline as soloist), plus Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.