Semyon Bychkov led the San Francisco Symphony through Rachmaninoff's The Bells and Symphony No. 2 last night at Davies. I had the good fortune of bringing my friend GG to see the orchestra perform the first time and she really enjoyed it. It was a program that would satisfy both the newcomer and the regular visitor. Rachmaninoff is one of my favorite composers and this program immediately stood out when I perused this year's schedule as one of the must-see concerts.
Strangely, I had a mixed reaction to the performance. In the ten years I've been regularly attending SFS concerts I don't think I've ever heard this orchestra sound so warm- especially the violin section. The horns too, played with a resonance I've seldom experienced at this level. Carey Bell, principal clarinet, has been on a roll the past couple of seasons, turning in one remarkable, notable performance after another but last night, during the solo in the 2nd Symphony's final movement, he outdid himself. Bell gave the audience a solo that truly was something of exquisite beauty, leaving me with the impression that he must now be considered one of the orchestra's key players. It was unforgettable.
Yet for me, there were some things missing that would have made the entire evening a success despite many fine moments, many of which were truly exciting. During The Bells the chorus became a wall of sound that reached Spectoresque proportions. Soloists Frank Lopardo and Mikhail Petrenko sang their parts with passion, with Lopardo offering an especially nuanced performance which at times was overwhelmed by the orchestra. Petrenko has an obvious passion for the piece that was as readily evident as he listened as much as when he sang. Nuccia Focile on the other hand, seemed uncomfortable from the moment she took the stage until she left it, and she gave the same impression during her singing.
More so than many composers, Rachmaninoff lives or dies by the conductor at hand. Bychkov gave a reading that emphasized speed over beauty and and the result was that many of the more delicate moments in each piece disappeared under the weight of the orchestra churning at full speed. That's not to say that there weren't gorgeous moments in both works (it is Rachmaninoff, after all), just not as many as I for one, would have expected. Hence you get the mixed-bag reception from this particular listener.
I missed another opportunity to introduce myself to Josh Kosman, who was chatting the couple seated next to us. Oddly, the couple disappeared at intermission only to return after the 2nd to reclaim an umbrella and a coat left behind. Hey Josh, I didn't want to interrupt your conversation, but that was me looking for an opening in it. Mr. Vaz was also in attendance and I'm curious to know what he thought of the whole thing.
After the performance GG and I made our way over to Sauce, where the service for our dessert and drinks was excellent.