Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, Christian Reif gave his debut performance as Wattis Foundation Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO). This was not, however, his first appearance on the podium in Davies. That took place on September 30, 2015, when he led the San Francisco Symphony in the West Coast premiere of Ted Hearne’s “Dispatches,” composed under the support of the New Voices project. Under that project Reif had given the world premiere of this piece with the New World Symphony during his first season there as Conducting Fellow because Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) was indisposed at the time. Since Reif knew the music so well, MTT arranged for him also to conduct the West Coast premiere at Davies.
Yesterday’s concert followed the traditional overture-concerto-symphony format; but, once again, physical health required a change in programming, this time where the concerto was involved. Violinist Jason Moon, 2016 winner of the SFSYO Concerto Competition, had been scheduled to perform Jean Sibelius’ Opus 47 concerto in D minor but unfortunately needed to withdraw because of injury. He was replaced by Alexi Kenney, who had served as SFSYO Concertmaster during the 2010–11 season and is currently in the Artist Diploma program at the New England Conservatory, where he is studying with Donald Weilerstein and Miriam Fried under the Charlotte F. Rabb Presidential Scholarship.
To call Kenney an adequate replacement would be the height of understatement. His nuanced shaping of every gesture in the solo part made it clear that he owned this concerto. His command of soft dynamics revealed a solid confidence that he knew how to make himself heard at any level of loudness. Such breadth of expression found the perfect match in Reif’s work as conductor. Reif clearly agreed with Kenney’s approaches to dynamics, phrasing, and tempo and knew exactly how to align the orchestra not only to match Kenney’s expressive gestures but to respond to them with the phrases that Sibelius had conceived for such accompaniment. Some might think that this concerto selection was all about ambitious display; but Kenney presented it as if it was his most favorite violin composition, hoping that attentive listeners would enjoy it as much as he did. In doing so he made himself an ideal role model for the rising SFSYO talents.
Indeed, following the intermission, those talents came across as just as suitably matched to the symphony selection as Kenney was to Sibelius’ concerto. That symphony was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 54 (sixth) in B minor, definitely not a composition to take lightly. Indeed, Opus 54 is almost notoriously unwieldy. While it is only about half an hour in duration, the first twenty minutes are taken up by the opening Largo movement. With that as context, the remaining two movements, with tempo markings of Allegro and Presto, almost fly by like lightning. Furthermore, the extended scope of that opening movement affirms the proposition that Shostakovich had significant interest in the music of Gustav Mahler; and that Largo now stands as his most capable attempt to think in terms of “Mahler time.”
Psychologically, Shostakovich was recovering from having endured denunciation by Soviet authorities in the wake of his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District opera. Rehabilitation had begun with his Opus 47 (fifth) symphony in D minor, given its first performance on November 21, 1937. The Opus 54 Largo may thus be taken as a retrospective account of his own recovery process, while the following Allegro may be taken as a positive affirmation of an authoritative power that, in retrospect, was taken to have done the right thing.
Nevertheless, one cannot avoid thinking that there is a hidden message in the Presto. On the surface it comes across as the sort of galop that often serves as music for the apotheosis of a major full-length ballet. However, there is also an unavoidable sense that this is circus music, perhaps intimating that life in the Soviet Union had been reduced to the farce of a series of circus acts with Joseph Stalin as the ruthless ringmaster. Still, Reif seemed less interested in whether this symphony had an agenda and more committed to making sure that the entire SFSYO ensemble mastered both the grammatical complexity of the score itself and the intensity of expression behind those marks on paper. Opus 54 was a bold undertaking for a debut performance, but Reif rose to the occasion and could not have done a better job at establishing his credentials.
The “overture” selection also demanded full SFSYO resources. “Maenads’ Dance” was the final movement from a three-movement instrumental suite that Hans Werner Henze extracted from his one-act opera “The Bassarids,” itself structured as a four-movement symphony. The opera used a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman based on Euripides’ The Bacchae. All three proper nouns refer to a violently fanatical cult devoted to the god Dionysos, also known as Bacchus (hence Euripides’ title). The play is about the mortal King Pentheus of Thebes, who is determined to destroy the cult (which is led by his mother) and is torn to shreds when he encounters their frantic revels. The instrumental selection depicts both those revels and the death of Pentheus.
If Reif had decided to begin his debut season with a bang, he could not have picked a better selection. The excerpt is only about four minutes long, but it almost takes that much time to read the entire list of percussion instruments required for the performance. In spite of all of those decibels, Reif expertly balanced his resources allowing the listener to appreciate Henze’s well-calculated sense of the interplay of rhythms and themes. Pentheus’ screams when attacked were expertly rendered through a horn solo taken by Ellie Antici, while Co-Principal Cello David Basili depicted the discovery of Pentheus’ body parts by his mother.
Taken as a whole, this was a program more likely to be found at an evening subscription concert, rather than an afternoon “family event.” SFSYO has a long history of rising to the many challenges set forth by difficult repertoire. Reif clearly appreciates that history, and yesterday afternoon’s program made it clear that he intends to continue and extend it. Perhaps it is time for these musicians to show their worth in a less casual (and, by corollary, less “family-friendly”) setting. Many of them are likely to be the next generation of musicians whose performances we shall attend regularly, and introducing them to a more formal concert setting might be beneficial for all involved.