Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony gleams under Salonen’s baton in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Various: San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 7.10.2021. (HS)

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Hannah Kendall – ‘Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama’

Unsuk Chin Graffiti

Beethoven – Symphony No.7

It is a bit early to characterize the Esa-Pekka Salonen Era after two concerts, but what stands out after the second week of the 2021-22 season is the sheer energy of his performances. A pair of new works, one a U.S. premiere, may have tested patience for some of us, but that only made Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 more vivid.

Even when a few audience members dragged in late from intermission, prompting Salonen to good-naturedly wave them to them to their seats with a welcoming gesture, the precision and punch of the opening chords launched the Beethoven symphony with verve. The long introduction unfolded at a quick pace but never felt hurried, just eager to get to the famous 6/8 dance at the center of the opening movement.

The usually hesitant transition to the exposition leapt into the flute tune that sets the rhythm in motion, and we were off on a breezy exploration of all the aspects the composer could draw from that little ditty. It was spicy without being too hot or rushed, but the momentum never flagged.

The second movement Allegretto also moved along nicely, with swelling and ebbing dynamics like ocean waves. The contrasting melody sailed smoothly, providing a respite from the pulse and unifying the movement. More careful attention to dynamics provided extra color.

The Scherzo set off at a rapid clip, creating a racy atmosphere yet getting a sense of elegance by finishing phrases with pleasing, quick diminuendos. The trio, with its treading chords, fit like a corner piece, and the transitions between the trio and the rest were seamless.

The finale, which burst in without pause, might have benefitted from better articulation of the repeating flourishes by the violins in the opening tune, but the potency of the orchestra’s rhythmic drive made for a thrilling ride. In particular, the horns’ repeated interjections seemed to add extra spice, and the woodwinds made the flourish swirl with accuracy.

In contrast to the symphony with its refreshing thrust balanced with grace, the new works in the first half of the program were intent on avoiding any kind of steady rhythm. This was especially so with Unsuk Chin’s Graffiti, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered in 2013 under Gustavo Dudamel. In a recorded commentary aired just before the piece was played, the composer said eclectic graffiti and street art she saw in her visits to cities around the world inspired the music.

It did indeed shift from one color and style to another, unmoored by a steady beat, grasping for colorful instrumental combinations, creating a free-floating scene that spins into different worlds with the next breath. The third and final movement, though called a ‘passacaglia’, turns the form on its head. Instead of a recognizable repeated grounding over which the music evolves, it is stitched together around staccato brass, the individual notes seeming unconnected to anything else going on. Fascinating as it is floating by, it’s hard to hear where it is heading.

For all that, Graffiti was more enjoyable than the opening work, the confusingly titled ‘Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama’. It is named for the street artist Basquiat’s 1982 piece which inspired Hannah Kendall to write this six-minute contemplation about globalization and the pandemic (and Black Lives Matter protests) for the BBC Proms in 2020. Although a program note mentions her use of harmonicas and the African-American spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’ played on a music box, I could discern neither.

This inchoate, jagged music was uncomfortably reminiscent of many abstract 1950s and 1960s works. My wife and I characterized them as ‘plinky-plunky’, and they plagued modern classical music until minimalist and post-modernists managed to overtake that genre.

Both of these well-meaning works were new to San Francisco audiences (‘Tuxedo’ was a U.S. premiere). They certainly ticked the now-required boxes of music by women and people of color. If they suffered from rudderless frameworks, they at least set up (by contrast) the vitality of a truly memorable performance of the Beethoven symphony.

Harvey Steiman

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