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Simone Young Commands a Colorful Telling of Scheherazade With the S.F. Symphony

April 19, 2019

San Francisco Symphony

Women don’t turn up very often on the podium at Davies Hall, a fact affirmed by the you-go-girl cheer that greeted Simone Young when she made her San Francisco Symphony conducting debut on Thursday, April 18. The newcomer, whose résumé includes artistic directorships of the Australian Opera and Hamburg State Opera and her current posting as principal guest conductor of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, didn’t hesitate to make herself heard.

Plucking a microphone from the music stand, she spoke of the communal grief and hope the recent fire at Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral induced. Music, she said, can address, “our collective experience.” She then proceeded to lead a wonderfully attentive account of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, that familiar, quietly shimmering aubade to a dead princess. Humbly hushed strings, aching horns, and some lustrous flourishes by harpist Douglas Rioth were woven together in a translucent meditation — delicate but never precious, as this fragile piece, first composed as a piano solo, can sometimes be.

Young, whose big clear beats and expansive gestures exuded authority, made an entirely different impression in a go-for-broke reading of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The 1888 symphonic suite filled to overflowing the second half of the program. A keen, freshly conceived performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, with Louis Lortie as the exciting soloist, completed the bill.

Young and the orchestra did their most substantial work in the Rimsky Korsakov piece, based on the Arabian Nights folk tales. Over nearly 50 minutes, the eponymous storyteller engages her murderously impatient listener, the Sultan Shahriar, in a test of self-preserving narrative will. Young seized on the work’s high-contrast style right from the start, with the Sultan’s thundering brass output promptly countered by Scheherazade’s sinuous, insinuating lines, voiced with surpassing eloquence and insouciance by concertmaster Alexander Barantschik.

Again and again, this invaluable violinist made a listener half-believe he was hearing not notes and runs, cunning accents, and double-stops but music somehow transmuted into entrancing human speech. One could have gone on listening for 1001 nights. Barantschik had a great story to tell.

He wasn’t the only voice to be heard. In this abundant showpiece, lots of the orchestra’s gifted individual players and sections had their moments to shine. Clarinetist Carey Bell added some nimbly fingered stitchery to the canvas, Stephen Paulson contributed a pensive bassoon solo at the outset of the second movement, “The Tale of the Kalander Prince.” All the woodwinds chipped in persuasively.

The brasses made plenty of noise, in the symphonic equivalent of gleaming power chords. The percussion section played with hair-trigger precision and touches of dry wit. Rioth, who figured importantly in all three works, made the harp a central but never intrusive figure. In terms of orchestral color, this Scheherazade was painted from a brightly saturated palette.

At times, the colors clashed a bit, overwhelmed and blurred. The strings went through a wooly patch early on. The dynamics occasionally registered as loud, louder than that, and louder still. But for much of the way the composer’s coruscating effects came off in propulsive waves, swirling eddies and occasional reflective still points.

Young turned the final movement into a free-standing piece of musical theater and brilliant scene painting. A rhythmic intensity prevailed, with strongly delivered accents, alarming brass shrieks and somber warnings. The becalmed closing came as a tender and tenuous deliverance after a mighty storm.

The Ravel Concerto, with its jazzy angularities, fevered passagework for the soloist, and a languid waltz-time meditation in the middle, is a sure-fire crowd pleaser. The composer’s gift for orchestration is on display right away, with the wooden snap of a whip and restless piccolo goading the piano into action.

Louis Lortie, who gave the outer movements a distinctive and fascinating slant, made the familiar sound newly made, even improvised. His percussive but cohesive attacks, silvery glissandi, patiently whirring trills, and a penchant for musing to himself had the feel of someone enjoying every moment and in no hurry to be done with it.

Young and the orchestra were right there with him, whether with a caressing saxophone riff, suave string work, or alert percussion exclamation. The fleet third movement was like a single complex sentence, full of piano notes winnowed out of hiding inside dense chords, a sarcastic blessing from the woodwinds, and blitz-like run to the finish.

The only let-down came in the Adagio. With the tempo a shade too slow, Lortie never quite found the pulse for the piano’s triple-meter undertow. The melody meandered without the requisite uneasy sense of mounting urgency. Even here, on a night of splendid individual and ensemble playing, the woodwinds keened and longed for something more.

That was waiting just around the corner in the final movement — a scintillating Presto sprint to end the evening.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.