Gersen Conducts Pungent New Reich in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Pärt, Reich, Prokofiev, Borodin: Yefim Bronfman (piano), San Francisco Symphony / Joshua Gersen (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 20.6.2019. (HS)

Yefim Bronfman © Todd Rosenberg

Arvo PärtFratres for Strings and Percussion
Steve ReichMusic for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018)
Prokofiev — Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor
BorodinPolovstian Dances from Prince Igor

What may look like a random assortment of music came together in a resoundingly satisfying concert in Davies Symphony Hall. The San Francisco Symphony, playing under substitute conductor Joshua Gersen, conjured four very different moods in works that ranged from meditation to colorful dances, with stops along the way for edgier stuff.

Gersen filled in for music director Michael Tilson Thomas, who was at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio that very morning, undergoing an unspecified heart procedure that will keep him off the podium until the orchestra’s fall season starts in September. Gersen served as assistant conductor to Tilson Thomas at the New World Symphony, and has led several previous concerts with the San Francisco crew.

The highlight was Steve Reich’s latest work for full orchestra, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018), which trades in a more incident-filled version of the minimalism that has characterized the 81-year-old composer’s work since the early days of the musical style. Co-commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and debuted last year by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Susanna Mälkki, basically extracts the instrumentation of Reich’s ensemble from the orchestra. It is a sort of concerto grosso format, in which the smaller ‘solo’ group comprises pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, vibraphones, pianos, first violins, second violins, violas, and cellos, plus one double bass and one electric bass. The orchestra consists of strings (without basses) and four trumpets.

Rather than pitting the small ensemble against the orchestra, as in a baroque concerto grosso, this one finds them seamlessly tossing the ball back and forth. The result folds together into more of a single piece.

It begins on two pianos with nervous oscillating chords in sixteenth notes, which provide the backdrop for increasingly expressive melodic gestures played by a dazzling array of instrumental pairs. Who knew that a violin and clarinet played together could sound like an alto saxophone? Or an oboe and cello together can make an otherworldly tone?

The five movements (a nod to Bartók) proceed at the same tempo, but the dominant note durations change — sixteenths for the outer movements, eighths for the second and fourth, and quarters for the more restful central movement. The tonal center moves up by a minor third from one movement to the next, starting and ending at A. Within this framework, against a soft bed of harmony in the full orchestra, the melodic and harmonic material in the smaller ensemble echoes and overlaps, stops and starts.

At times Reich creates a shimmering ripple effect, and at other moments he veers off into pungent harmonies and complex rhythmic tussles. The work kept up the fascination through its 20-minute duration.

This orchestra — and this conductor — championed these ideas with presence and pizzazz. They did just as well with a stately reading of Arvo Pärt’s hypnotic Fratres, in the composer’s 1991 version for strings and percussion. Gersen wove in just enough subtle gradations of dynamics to shade the repetitions and make them gently pulse.

If there were a connection between these first-half works, with different extremes of minimalism, the dramatic Russian works that followed after intermission had very different aims.

Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto — a product of his conservatory years that trades in spiky harmonies and broad gestures that employ tropes associated with Russian symphonic music — can still pose challenges to modern ears. But not when the pianist is Yefim Bronfman, who blazed through the physical challenges of the score (of which Prokofiev wrote plenty) and applied a crystalline touch to the melody line as it emerged above the stave.

Even when Bronfman played with power in louder passages, there was always a sense that something was left in reserve. The phrases pulsed with energy and had shape. The Scherzo, a two-and-a-half minute dash through rapid-fire parallel octaves, yielded to an Intermezzo in which the piano felt like a voice of moderation amongst some of the composer’s crunchy effects. The finale, which in some ways presages some of the heavier sections of his ballets, including Romeo and Juliet, swung from muscle to sudden moments of wonder, finishing in a rush of piano pyrotechnics and an emphatic blast from the orchestra.

For an encore Bronfman offered a gentle, graceful slow movement from a Scarlatti sonata. Full of trills and turns, it made a perfect counterpoint to the rough-edged concerto.

Gersen wrapped up the program with the familiar and popular Polovstian Dances from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, which came off like a refreshing romp in the park.

Harvey Steiman

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