Elim Chan stirs up juicy sounds in her San Francisco Symphony debut

United StatesUnited States Ogonek, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky: James Ehnes (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Elim Chan (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 12.1.2023. (HS)

Elim Chan © Willeke Machiels

Elizabeth OgonekMoondog (world premiere)

Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.2 in C minor

Conductor Elim Chan seemed to be channeling an old soul in a compelling, often exciting concert Thursday afternoon with the San Francisco Symphony and guest violin soloist, James Ehnes. The chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra, the Hong Kong-born, U.S.-trained musician toned down her generation’s tendency for conductorial gymnastics, finding precise and ear-pleasing ways to get the necessary energy out of the orchestra.

The matinee opened with a gauzy new piece from composer Elizabeth Ogonek. After Ehnes applied his elegant violin playing to Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2, a rousing rendition of the too-seldom-heard Tchaikovsky Symphony No.2 topped both pieces.

That is where Chan really showed her mettle, delivering spot-on tempo choices, shaping dynamics to keep things lively and finding ideal balances that allowed all the layers of sound to remain clear even in the most cluttered passages. These rewards were more than enough to compensate for moments when there could have been a bit more bounce to the rhythms.

Most satisfying were the charming slow movements in both the concerto and the symphony. Neither is particularly slow – the concerto is marked ‘Andante assai’ and the symphony is ‘Andantino, quasi moderato’ – and Chan kept them moving. She imbued both with a puckish wit and the control to draw elegant playing as the composers’ tunes unfolded over gentle accompaniments.

The Tchaikovsky made its points gracefully, starting with a softly cogent opening horn solo by associate principal Mark Almond, and principal bassoon Stephen Paulsen’s deftly applied orchestral adornments on the repeat. When the faster main part of the first movement got rolling, precision made it flow smoothly.

After the second movement’s gentle march, delivered by the woodwind principals with style, the scherzo took off briskly yet managed to stop short of chaos. In the finale, the brass’s slow fanfare recalled the opening measures of the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s ‘Great Gate at Kiev’. Then the earworm of a Ukrainian folk tune bounced around the orchestra with a remarkable sense of unanimity.

In the concerto, Ehnes was at his most ingratiating. He lavished lovely tone and found emotional depth in Prokofiev’s lithe melodies. The opening, played by the soloist alone, creating a sense of intimacy that pervaded the whole performance. This worked splendidly in the opening Allegro moderato and lent extra fragrance to the Andantino, even if the Allegro finale could have had more bite.

Even better was Ehnes’s encore, a zippy and dazzling romp through Paganini’s Caprice No.16.

The opener marked the return of Ogonek’s music to the San Francisco Symphony, which last year played her intriguing Sleep & Unremembrance. This one, Moondog (a San Francisco Symphony co-commission), meditates on the celestial phenomenon of ice crystal reflections around the moon as seen from Earth. Fuzzy harmonies and mostly static movement evoke a sense of wonder and beauty. Ripples of descending chromatic figures shimmer around the orchestra, reminiscent of Debussy’s orchestral accompaniments. Melodies, however, might have completed a more compelling picture.

Harvey Steiman

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