Music by Ligeti and Chin overshadows Mozart and Mendelssohn at San Francisco Symphony

United StatesUnited States Various: Javier Perianes (piano), San Francisco Symphony / Gustavo Gimeno (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 4.11.2021. (HS)

Gustavo Gimeno (c) Marco Borggreve

Unsuk Chin – ‘subito con forza’
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.21 in C major
LigetiConcert Românesc
Mendelssohn – Symphony No.4 in A major, ‘Italian’

Thank heavens for György Ligeti and Unsuk Chin. Without their eclectic and witty music to energize the San Francisco Symphony and visiting conductor Gustavo Gimeno, this concert would have been a bore. Promoted as ‘Gimeno Conducts Mendelssohn & Mozart’, neither the former’s ‘Italian’ symphony nor the latter’s Piano Concerto No.21 took wing.

Fortunately, Chin’s five-minute ‘subito con forza’ kicked things off with plenty of pizzazz. Even more spectacular was Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, a compact compilation of Romanian folk tunes rendered with the composer’s signature wit and color.

The Ligeti opened the second half of the concert. Composed in 1951, early in his career, the piece follows the folk-song-infused models of Bartók and Ionescu in form, Gypsy rhythms and modes. But then the finale inserts the occasional raspberry from the brass, and it eventually turns into a battle between the orchestra and a showoff solo violinist who doesn’t want the proceedings to end. The soloist, ably played by associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman, gets several of the other sections to follow before a punched final chord finally quiets her.

In this piece, Gimeno, chief conductor of the Luxembourg Philharmonic and music director of the Toronto Symphony, drew vigorous playing from the orchestra and painted vivid colors in Ligeti’s highly listenable tunes and harmonies.

He also conjured zesty playing in Chin’s tangy opener, written for KölnMusic’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday but debuted by the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam when the pandemic sidelined the Cologne event. The piece teases us with a brief taste of actual Beethoven, the opening gesture of Beethoven’s ‘Coriolan’ Overture. The sustained, fortissimo low C in the strings leaps to a ferocious F-minor chord spread through the full orchestra, quickly shatters into a glittery splash of tinkly percussion and veers off into an entirely different sound world.

Allusions to Beethoven’s music pop up briefly as Chin splashes pungent dissonances on a canvas of kaleidoscopic colors. The orchestra dived into this music with welcome abandon.

That sort of emotional connection was missing from both of the much more familiar works by Mozart and Mendelssohn. The playing was accurate enough, but Gimeno’s brisk tempos could not cover the lack of rhythmic spring or of the phrasing that their elegant music requires.

Javier Perianes, the piano soloist in the Mozart concerto, displayed technique that collected all the rapid notes and put them in place but missed chance after chance to shape them into anything meaningful. The central Andante found a nice flow, but the finale reverted to the same brittle feeling as the opening movement.

The Mendelssohn symphony was used brilliantly in the 1979 film Breaking Away to underline the lead character’s efforts to win the girl by pretending to be a bicycle-besotted Italian. Intent on speed, however, Gimeno never quite got the sprightliness and lift that makes this music so effective as an emblem of Italian-ness. The opening felt dutiful rather than inspired, and the finale breezed by so fast that its flashes of wit never came through.

One could expect more from a Spanish-born conductor mentored by Mariss Jansons and Claudio Abbado.

Harvey Steiman

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