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Hearing Is Believing

May 8, 2007

In a combination of community service and organizational preservation, on Sunday evening the San Francisco Academy Orchestra presented a concert in Calvary Presbyterian Church, to thunderous applause. Conductor Florin Parvulescu took on major repertoire with an orchestra made up of college students and recent graduates, infused with a few members of the San Francisco Symphony. The result was simply amazing.
Conductor Parvulescu and cellist Lawrence Granger opened the evening with Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major (Op. 101), then, after a brief intermission, followed it with the Suite from Stravinsky's ballet Pulcinella.

The orchestra grew out of the S.F. Symphony's 6-year-old Classics for Kids program. Members of the orchestra head out into schools to play programs for schoolchildren, followed by Q&A sessions. For many kids, this amounts to their first experience with live classical music. The Academy Orchestra blends talented student musicians with a few professionals of the S.F. Symphony sitting in first-chair posts. It's a matter of leading by example.

Anyone reviewing young people might make an allowance for their relative inexperience. I had been a bit concerned over the prospects of the tricky Pulcinella score, with its "pat your head and rub your tummy" passages. (O ye of little faith.)

Not to worry. These were performances of professional caliber, with only an occasional minor belch in the texture showing up. Now and then a solo passage revealed a smidgen of miscalculation, but none was too grievous, on the whole. Matters of articulation, intonation, and phrasing were right on the button.
Young Players Up to the Challenge
Parvulescu, a Romanian musician who joined the S.F. Symphony's first violin section in 1998, conducted handsomely, using clear, unexaggerated gestures free of grandstanding. He set solid, appropriate tempos throughout, not blinking when Stravinsky asked for breakneck speeds. His was a strength that was always at the ready, and the orchestra responded with faith in him, as well as in the music.

Haydn wrote a great many concertos, of which the D-Major Cello Concerto is by far the most frequently programmed. It also happens to be the only one in high virtuoso style, likely because his Prince Esterházy had hired for his court orchestra the cellist Anton Kraft, widely recognized as a supervirtuoso of the day. Haydn could thus throw all caution to the wind for this work, which is indeed a terror to play — it is, as a cellist friend once referred to it, a "white-knuckle concerto."

Granger, also a member of the S.F. Symphony, demonstrated a fine feeling for both the mechanics of the music and Haydnesque style. His performance of the slow movement was especially moving, and the finale lovingly lilting. Here and there, those stratospheric double stops — Haydn's version of a dare — sounded a little itchy-scratchy, but that's only human. I've never heard a live performance of the work without something going amiss. Bravo, Lawrence Granger!

Pulcinella, Stravinsky's seven-movement suite after Pergolesi — and "after" other works mistaken for Pergolesi's music at the time — constitutes one of the great charm machines of the Stravinsky canon. The composer took the original Baroque pieces and turned them into something approaching cubisticlike studies of the Baroque. In line with the originals, he also orchestrated the individual sections into almost concerto-grosso fashion. Some feature first-desk strings, others the winds, and one, in a grand expression of a sonic raspberry, a solo trombone — superbly done on Sunday, by the way.

Considering that the concert had been given scant publicity, a crowd of some 300-plus turned up. Its enthusiasm was even larger than the crowd itself. Whenever the music stopped for a brief pause, someone or other was breaking into applause. The oddest thing was that a single person kept on with it, once the music had resumed. Now there's a first for you, or at least for me.

If you would like to check on future programs of the Academy Orchestra, you might want to visit its Web site, at www.sfacademyorchestra.org. It's a local joy not to be missed.

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.