A dozen picks for the San Francisco Symphony's 2012-13 season

When the San Francisco Symphony announced their upcoming 2012-13 season back in early March just as the American Mavericks Festival getting underway, I thought the timing was certainly odd. Season announcements are big deals, yet the Symphony chose to do it just as one of the central events (perhaps the central event) of their centennial season was about to begin. It struck me as competing against one's self for attention. It didn't seem to draw a lot of attention or commentary from the usual channels. I took a quick perusal of it, thinking, not surprisingly, hmmm, can't compare to this year (but what could have?) and set it aside. A couple of months later, as the centennial was winding down, I took a second look, this time more in-depth, and was surprised to see discover how much of it I wanted to see- which was almost all of it. In fact, minus the Mavericks festival and visiting orchestras, the upcoming season looks about as good on paper as its predecessor, which is no small accomplishment. On top of that, it's probably the quirkiest schedule they've ever come up with, featuring some extremely alluring concerts that are only scheduled for one or two nights. This makes the task of coming up with a dozen top picks for next season quite difficult. In years past the season was made up of 24 different programs, plus the chamber series, Great Performers, and holiday concerts. Next year there are 37 (at last count- it still seems to be changing) to choose from, plus the usual extras, of which there seem to be even more than usual. It's almost too much to ponder. To complicate things further, after combing through the schedule a few times there are at best only a half-dozen programs that I would skip (due to the music or the conductor featured on the program). That makes it pretty difficult for the average concert-goer, who might attend 3 to 6 performances during the season, to decide on what to attend. I guess that's a good problem to have, but still- I had serious trouble narrowing it down to twelve.

For example, some people will be torn between the October 31st and the November 1st and 2nd concerts. Both feature Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony. But the Halloween gig has Yuja Wang peforming Prokofiev's 2nd piano concerto while the other nights feature Lang Lang playing Bartok's 2nd instead. It's an easy choice for me (Yuja), but I'd still feel like I was missing out one way or the other and I'm sure the folks who choose Lang might also feel conflicted. There are two versions of an all-Stravinsky program featuring The Rite of Spring, both for two nights only, one features Agon and Gil Shaham performing the Violin Concerto, the other has Les Noces and a Russian folk ensemble. I'd want to see both versions, but not back-to-back performances of The Rite of Spring. The Missa Solemnis returns for a mulligan, and for only two nights. Renée Fleming comes into town sing French composers, and Susan Graham joins her for one night only in a different, all-French program. Then there are the "regular" subscription concerts, which also offer plenty to choose from this year.

There's also a healthy dose of Beethoven this year, which in my opinion is never a bad thing, and a great selection of standard rep performed by some world-class soloists and conductors. For relative newcomers to the Symphony and staunch lovers of the "three Bs" and standard rep, this is a fantastic year to splurge and see as much as you can. Yet there's also plenty for those whose ears crave new or more obscure music. All in all, there's a lot to look forward to this year at Davies.

So, with just a couple of exceptions, I'm leaving most of the odd-ducks mentioned above out of contention and selecting mostly picks from the subscription programs, meaning they'll be performed at least three nights. They appear in chronological order and it's just coincidence the majority of them appear in the season's second half.

MTT conducts Mahler's Fifth  September 28-30
Just when you think MTT has shown us just about everything he can possibly do with Mahler, he proves how wrong that assumption is- last year's performance of Mahler's 3rd was one of the very best concerts I've ever witnessed. At this point it might be considered foolish to miss a performance of Mahler's work led the conductor who can arguably lay claim as its most persuasive living interpreter. The West Coast premiere of Samuel Carl Adams' Drift and Providence is also on the program.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, featuring Khatia Buniatishvili, Elena Zaremba, and Andrey Breus  October 18-20
The Principal Conductor of the London Phil makes debut with the orchestra in a program featuring the Georgian Buniatishvili playing the Rach 2nd (which is reason enough to go), but the main event is the U.S. premiere of Levon Atovmyan's arrangement  of Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible, which the SFS hasn't performed since 1979, as well as the SFS's first performances of Scriabin's Reverie.

MTT and Yuja Wang  October 31st
Yuja performs Prokofiev's 2nd Piano Concerto and MTT leads the orchestra in Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony. On Nov. 1st and 2nd, Wang is replaced by Lang Lang performing Bartok's 2nd Piano Concerto, again with Rach's 2nd Symphony. Kinda strange, especially when you add in the concert of October 27th, when Yuja performs Rach's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the orchestra plays an encore of the Mahler 5th. Confused? Just go on Halloween (assuming you can score a ticket).

MTT and Yefim Bronfman  December 5-8
My personal favorite at the keys, Bronfman's local performances these past years have been consistently stunning. He returns to Davies to play Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. This is a bit of a disappointment because Fima was supposed to perform a new work by Jorg Widmann, but word is it won't be ready on time, so we get the Emperor instead. I can easily live with that. Also on the program is the world premiere of Assistant Concertmaster Mark Volkert's Pandora and R. Strauss' tone poem Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks.

MTT and Renée Fleming  January 10, 12, 13
It's Renée Fleming. That's really all you need to know.
And on January 16 it's Renee Fleming and Susan Graham singing French stuff accompanied by Bradley Moore. Like Christmas, only better.

MTT and Yuja Wang  March 6-9
Yuja returns for Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto, my favorite of the five. Also on the program are Berio's Eindrucke and Brahms' First Symphony. This year features a lot of Yuja and a lot of Beethoven. That's a good thing-especially when it's at the same time.

MTT conducts Mahler's 9th  March 14-17
See comments above for Mahler's 5th. Then get a ticket to hear this.

Blomstedt conducts Wagner, Beethoven and Lidholm  April 11-14
Last season Blomstedt lead truly great performances during his two weeks at the podium. This year he's conducting core rep and modern classics. These concerts, featuring the Eroica symphony, the Prelude from Tristan un Isolde (perhaps the greatest fifteen minutes of music ever written) and Ingvar Lindholm's last twelve tone work from 1963, just may be the one I'm most looking forward to hearing.

Blomstedt and Julia Fischer  April 17-20
The second week of Blomstedt's visit features Fischer as the soloist for Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Nielsen's Symphony No. 5 by one of the composer's best interpreters. This will be a night of incredibly rich music.

Christoph Eschenbach and Matthias Goerne  April 25-27
Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 is a draw unto itself, and there also the ever-popular From the New World by Dvořák, but the real attraction here is Goerne, whose recitals last year drew raves from coast-to-coast. I missed his last local performance, but won't make that mistake again. He'll be singing "Die Frist is um" from The Flying Dutchman and Wotan's Farewell from Die Walküre. 

MTT conducts Beethoven's Missa Solemnis  May 10, 11
Last year this didn't quite work. Let's try it again.

West Side Story in concert  June 27-30, July 2
I don't even care that the cast hasn't been announced yet. Nothing would keep me from seeing this one. Nothing.

Tickets are now on sale for all concerts. Call (415) 864-6000 or buy them online.
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