Review: SF Symphony makes a fierce noise with a guest conductor
To an unsuspecting observer, the robust and powerful din emerging from Davies Symphony Hall on Friday May 13 could have been mistaken for some sort of climatic or seismic event. But no – it was just the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, raising the roof under guest conductor Karina Canellakis.
Richard Strauss’ music sounded loud and powerful. The music of Lili Boulanger, even stronger. Witold Lutoslawski’s music, the loudest and most explosive of all. You could even say there was a theme.
Up to a point, there was something impressive about this show of force. Canellakis, an American conductor who holds a dizzying array of positions with orchestras in Amsterdam, London and Berlin, has a powerful but never imperious podium style. She leads with sweeping sweeping movements that seem to bring the entire ensemble together in a torrential rush of sound, and she shapes the course of a performance with rhythmic deliberation.
Yet, much like his 2019 debut with the Symphony, there was something direct and blocky about Canellakis’ interpretive choices. It wasn’t just the dynamics, which tended to jump fortissimo at the slightest provocation and stay there; the overall shape of each piece also unfolded in distinct paragraphs that came and went abruptly.
For this listener, the most compelling part of the evening came during the first half, when cellist Alisa Weilerstein joined the orchestra as a soloist for Strauss’ “Don Quixote.” In this musical evocation of Cervantes’ novel – a wonderful blend of symphonic poem, concerto and variation – events come and go in painterly splendour, each built around the theme associated with the main character.
As a performer, Weilerstein also has a taste for the grand gesture, but this time around she has balanced that beautifully with a vein of inner tenderness. His characterization of Quixote was rightly vibrant and varied – by turns melancholy, thoughtful, heroic and insane, and often all at once. Jonathan Vinocour, the excellent Principal Viola of the Symphony Orchestra, made witty and joyful contributions as Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza.
While the larger narrative form of the piece felt a little diffuse, there were still plenty of moments to savor. Canellakis shaped the orchestral introduction with limpid clarity and gave a luminous softness to the closing pages; the arrival of an army of sheep, staring at Don Quixote, lands with comical precision.
After the intermission, Canellakis took the orchestra down less familiar paths in the orchestral repertoire. It began with the first symphonic interpretation of Boulanger’s “D’un soir triste”, a dark and painful pavane written in 1917-18 shortly before the composer’s death at 24. It’s music that wears its heart on its sleeve, but even then, the performance felt too pushy.
So it is with Lutoslawski’s 1954 Concerto for Orchestra, a bold and outgoing centerpiece that demands a lot of urgency throughout. At times, as in the rapid Toccata that took center stage in the three-part finale, Canellakis infused the music with vigor and dexterity; other sections just looked windy.
San Francisco Symphony: 7:30 p.m. Saturday May 14; 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 15. $35 to $125. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave, SF 415-864-6000. www.sfsymphony.org