French Panache from Youth Orchestra Ready for Its European Tour

United StatesUnited States Mason Bates, Bloch, Berlioz: Elena Urioste (violin), San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, Donato Cabrera (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 20.6.2015 (HS)

Mason Bates: Garages of the Valley
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique


When the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra builds to thrilling climaxes in a colorful work like the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, it’s easy to forget that these are mostly teenagers. In a special “bon voyage” concert Saturday, on the eve of an 18-day European tour, they made a full and resonant sound that never tipped over the edge, maintaining a French panache even as the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” finale swung into full bloom.

The orchestra, comprising musicians from 12 to 21 years old, has been mounting European tours every three or four years since 1986. This one starts June 25 in Milan, with stops in Udine, Ingolstadt, Berlin and Amsterdam to follow, finishing in Prague on July 8. Repertoire includes the Berlioz, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The repertoire also include two American works—John Adams’ rousing Short Ride in a Fast Machine from 1986 and a more recent one, Mason Bates’ evocative Garages of the Valley, which debuted in 2014. Donato Cabrera, resident conductor the San Francisco Symphony and this orchestra’s conductor since 2009, leads all the performances.

The concert Saturday opened with Bates’ gently propulsive meditation on the seat-of-the-pants nature of Silicon Valley’s roots. Iconic companies such as Apple, Intel and Google all started humbly in somebody’s garage. The stop-and-start nature of the opening measures eventually coalesce into a sleek, happy finish about 10 minutes later. Bates’ approachable style drops spicy glints into amiably consonant textures, with acoustic instruments making occasional sounds that emulate electronics. Unlike most of this composer’s works, this one uses no computers, only alluding to them. Truth to tell, this still felt like a work in progress for the orchestra. One could feel the kaleidoscope turning, but it wasn’t always in focus.

Better was the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, which unfolded with remarkable precision. American-born Elena Urioste, still in her twenties, played the solo part (Sergei Khachatryan and Renaud Capuçon share the solo duties on tour), displaying rich low notes and pure sound from bottom to top on her Alessandro Gagliano violin, made in Naples circa 1706. Hers was a well-mannered approach, with just enough punch to bring out Bruch’s own reined-in Romanticism. Cabrera obliged with similarly sweet sentiments from the orchestra.

With the full complement of musicians on stage, the Symphonie Fantastique made the strongest impression for range of sound and general impact. Although Cabrera followed a well-trod path, minimizing any urges to go too wild, this was anything but a colorless performance. The sinuously undulating strings in the Part One “Reveries, Passions” sneaked in the “idee-fixe” tune so it emerged organically from the texture, gaining more presence as it recurred throughout the work, a nice touch.

If the dance atmosphere could have been more evocative in Part Two, “A Ball,” the picture of Part Three, “Scene in the Fields,” could not have been sharper, an onstage English horn trading echoes with an offstage oboe to create a mountain atmosphere. Although the “March to the Scaffold,” which followed, and the witchy finale could have cranked up the voltage a bit more, the overall impression of precision and muscle did the trick.

Faure’s Pavane, scheduled to be the program opener in Milan, got a supple, magical reading as an encore.

Harvey Steiman

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