Petrenko, Bavouzet Deliver Scintillating Bartók, Respighi

United StatesUnited States Pärt, Bartók, Respighi: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 5.10.2012 (HS)

Pärt: Fratres for strings and percussion
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3
Respighi: Fountains of Rome
Respighi: Pines of Rome

It sure is a delight when a conductor develops a rapport with an orchestra. The music comes alive. Excitement ensues. Magic happens. In only his third appearance with the San Francisco Symphony, conductor Vasily Petrenko and the musicians performed like old friends in a rewarding program that started with the naïve simplicity of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, ended with the gaudy scene-painting of Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, and Béla Bartók’s nostalgic Piano Concerto No. 3 in between.

Petrenko first appeared with the orchestra in 2010, conducting Shostakovich and Grieg, and again about this time last year leading a heartfelt Elgar Symphony No. 1 and a delicious romp through the Glazunov Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell. Here, as on these previous occasions, he displayed a sure hand with tempo and timbre, drawing unanimous playing from the orchestra, contrasting thrilling climaxes with quiet sections reminiscent of chamber music. There is nothing flamboyant about this 36-year-old conductor’s presence, but he doesn’t seem overly earnest either. There is a calm about his attitude that belies the fireworks that can come from the music.

This time the highlight came with a warm and incisive traversal of Bartók’s final piano concerto. French soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet didn’t blaze through it so much as let the music flow naturally, spiked with just enough rhythmic bite to keep it juicy.

The piece starts quietly, the piano ruminating on what feels like a homespun theme while the orchestra lays down a bed of pulsating harmony. The interplay between the orchestra and piano was seamless and unhurried, concluding with a wisp of a flute question answered matter-of-factly by the piano. The night music of the middle movement, marked “adagio religioso,” is modeled after the thankful hymns Beethoven wrote for the slow movement of his String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. Bavouzet found a warm, supple tone for the piano’s chorales while Petrenko delicately wove an interplay of strings around it. Bavouzet was equally commanding when the finale, bursting with rhythm, quickly delved into a prickly fugue. He rendered it crisply, with a sense of forward motion that Petrenko picked up smoothly and carried to a rousing conclusion.

Pärt’s chorale-like themes in Fratres provided an appropriate foreshadowing of Bartók’s slow movement. Petrenko shaped these phrases into something organic, blooming with slightly different details each time they recurred, emphasizing that they come in at ever-lower pitches. The effect was to minimize the score’s repetitious aspects and make it feel almost like a slow-motion, distant cousin to Bolero, the subtle changes in the strings a watercolor echo of Ravel’s technicolor orchestration.

After intermission, the color palette expanded to the limit with Respighi’s extravagant tone poems. Petrenko and the orchestra managed to render the evocative gestures that suggest water rippling through fountains and fog among pine trees, and the outsized climaxes, all with an underlying sense of proportion. (I almost wrote “restraint” but there’s nothing restrained about these broad musical gestures.) The final pages of “The Pines of the Appian Way” sounded forth without excess blare, but with plenty of muscle. Credit the conductor for hitting the right balance.

Harvey Steiman