I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a suggestion for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. MTT, you should retire in five years. That will give you a 20 year tenure with the orchestra, the longest and arguably most significant one in its history, and you'll have plenty of years left to compose and conduct all over the world. Then, when his contract expires with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2015, the SFS can hire Vasily Petrenko as your replacement. In fact, I think SFS would be well-served to start courting Petrenko now. Sadly, he's not on the roster for next year's season, but since he's also at home in the opera house, perhaps David Gockley can hire him for a gig across the street since he has over thirty operas in his repertoire (Le Villi or Eugene Onegin?).
Why am I suggesting this? On Friday I watched and heard Petrenko lead the orchestra through Shostakovitch's massive and unwieldy Eighth Symphony with stunning mastery. Frankly, I don't think I've ever heard the entire orchestra sound so solid, with every section performing at its peak- especially the brass section, which can sometimes be the Achilles heel to an otherwise flawless performance. Shostakovitch makes this easy and difficult at the same time. The piece is a meandering work, that works against the standard symphonic structure at every turn, where the composer sought " to express the emotional experiences of the People, to reflect the terrible tragedy of war." It has explosive marches, huge screaming sections of pain and quiet, ruminative passages that deftly express loss and sadness. It also has numerous solos for almost every section of the orchestra to shine in, and last night the Symphony's A-Team was present, each one knocking out one memorable moment after another. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, cellists Michael Grebanier and Peter Wyrick, clarinetist Carey Bell, William Bennet on the oboe, Mark Inouye, Robert Ward and David Herbert excelled, but the entire orchestra was magnificent.
Maybe the orchestra is just on a high after returning from a successful tour, but where one might have expected a less than stellar evening with a guest conductor making his debut for a three night stand and the musicians understandably tired from being on the road, it was just the opposite. The house seemed packed, perhaps many coming for the opening Grieg piano concerto, or maybe for the Davies After Hours party following the concert, and when it was over I felt like we had just witnessed something truly special. Something that should happen again. So think about it MTT. Five years- plenty of time to build on your already impressive legacy and then turn the reigns over to Petrenko.
Petrenko is model of controlled precision- his hands flutter and he seems to use individual fingers to deliver cues to various sections- he's totally engaged and like James Gaffigan, you can tell exactly where the orchestra is going by watching him. The Eighth is a potential landmine of places where it can all fall apart at any moment and yet it never once faltered, the orchestra never lapsed whether they were playing the most delicate passages or the most noisy burlesques that sound like a human carnival falling into a meat grinder. Again, I have never heard the SFS brass section sound so crisp and perfect.
Okay, enough of that. The first half was Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor, with Macedonian soloist Simon Trpceski giving an earnest reading devoid of flash and all business, yet played with heart. I was a really good performance, but it was outshone by the second half.
The After Hours event, featuring Adam Theis and the Jazz Mafia All Stars started off with a huge crowd in the tight confines of the second balcony, which thinned as the night wore on, thankfully making it much easier to get a drink at the bar. I thought the band was a little over-amped for the space, but I love these event and wish SFS would stage them with more regularity than they do- there is one more this year after the performance of June 11th, with Amy X Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet following a night of seriously great German music. I'll be there.
Photo of Petrenko by Mark McNulty