January 30, 2014

Standard to Gold Standard: When the Russians Ravish

San Francisco Symphony
By Steven Winn

Daniil TrifonovWith his head bobbing so low over the keyboard that a collision of chin and flying hands seemed imminent, the floppy-haired Russian piano phenom Daniil Trifonov put the Davies Symphony Hall audience on notice right away. Something risky was about to happen. And so it did, in a warhorse-smashing, wildly entertaining performance of the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the San Francisco Symphony.

Trifonov, 22, doesn’t just play accurately, fast, and loud, although he would certainly be a heavy favorite in any note, speed, or sound contest. Nor does he make his mark with eccentricities and contrived interpretive oddities, even if some of his tempos were notably stretched or compressed and his pedaling verged now and then on the blurry.

What mattered, and made this such a dazzling event, was the total conviction, the wash of fresh light that the soloist shone on a familiar work. The pointilist precision that turned runs into taut little storylines and chords into multi-hued meditations; the unexpected accent that reconfigured a phrase into something witty or piercing; the ache and yearning of his lyrical lines, made more powerful by his never milking them; a solemn announcement of the Dies Irae theme; octaves that went marching up and down the keyboard with a fresh and powerfully striding gait. All these details and more were molded into something by turns gripping, lush, wistful, wanton; and, in sum, rhapsodic in the broadest sense of the term.

The orchestra rose to the occasion, under guest conductor Osmo Vänskä. Despite an occasional disconnect over tempos and a frayed texture here and there, the musicians delivered with color, buoyancy, and heft. The lush passages surged freely. The attacks came with angular force and bite. The brasses sounded out cleanly. A bassoon barked out of the throng. Nothing was held back.

What made this such a dazzling event, was the total conviction, the wash of fresh light that Trifonov shone on a familiar work ... molded into something by turns gripping, lush, wistful, wanton; rhapsodic in the broadest sense of the term.

Orchestras program staples because they are intrinsically worth doing and popular with audiences. But they also do it because an artist like Trifonov can come along and knock off the dust and received wisdom about how a familiar piece ought to sound. This was a concussive, ravishing, startling and altogether convincing Rachmaninov Rhapsody to remember.

Vänskä has been much in the news recently, for painfully leaving his post as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra during a 15-month lockout of the players and now reportedly mulling a return with the labor dispute resolved. Whatever his preoccupations, he seemed delighted to be on the podium here. He’s a vital, expressive, and exacting conductor, who drew warm and carefully calibrated performances from the San Franciscans.

The program opened and closed with the Vänskä speciality of Sibelius' Night Ride and Sunrise and the Symphony No. 6 , Op. 104. Stravinsky’s rich and compact Symphonies of Wind Instruments filled out the bill.

Even with pieces off the composer’s more familiar play list, there was a lot of Sibelius for one concert. After a clamorous opening, Night Ride settled in for a long trip driven by cantering strings. The rhythm got taken up by the timpani, gradually transformed by the strings, and intercut with probing inquisitions from the woodwinds and brasses. Vänskä and the ensemble brought thrust and interest to all of it, but there was a certain numbing effect to all the film-scorish scenery.

Vänskä is a vital, expressive, and exacting conductor, who drew warm and carefully calibrated performances from the San Franciscans.

Woodwind bird chirps signaled a cut to the Sunrise. The lustrous early light yielded a handsome French horn anthem and later on a brighter passage for the trumpets and trombones. The piece rose to a full-throated exaltation of the whole. Lovely and vivid as it was in patches, the piece felt redundant and longer than its 15-minute duration.

The Symphony No. 6 opened in a similar vein, with a long-winded opening passage and a fair-amount of wheel-spinning of rising and falling melodies through the first two movements, both of which end in odd, offhanded ways. A vivid Scherzo offered a welcome change, full of percolating rhythms, swooping melodies, and an elegantly poised trio section. The final Allegro molto balanced momentum and a shining string sound. Again, the rich sonorities, well-etched details, and overall architecture were all in place. But only a true Sibelius devotee might have found all the lengthy, slowly evolving exposition rewarding from beginning to end.

Stravinsky’s 10-minute Symphonies of Wind Instruments is a kind of beguiling paradox — neither symphonic in scope nor structure, yet somehow larger than the sum of its smallish parts. More a series of cannily linked episodes, it tests out different groups of instruments in a jittery yet cohesive progression. There are wistful little melodic fragments that seem to have floated in from The Rite of Spring. A canon turns into a brief antic chase scene. A gorgeous, dark-hued chorale, prefigured early on, unites all the forces at the end.

The San Francisco wind players gave a splendid reading of the score, supple and surely wrought. Vänskä united the moving parts into a smooth and confident whole. As soon as it was over, you wanted to hear it all again.

The Finn Sibelius made a perfectly respectable showing in this concert. But if this had a been an Olympics event, the Russians, with Trifonov proudly carrying the flag, would have taken home the gold.

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.