Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, this week’s series of subscription concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) involved debut performances by conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada and pianist Denis Kozhukhin. Kozhukhin had made his Davies debut a little over three years ago, in March of 2014, when he performed Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) piano concerto in B-flat minor with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra led by Yuri Temirkanov. For Orozco-Estrada, currently Music Director of the Houston Symphony, this was his first appearance in Davies.
Kozhukhin had not been shy in his intense approach to Tchaikovsky; but he also had a clear sensitivity to details such as dynamic contour, avoiding the frequent trap of charging through the concerto as if it were one overwhelming climax after another. Last night’s concerto was Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 14 (second) in G minor, which is even more fraught with such traps. Prokofiev had composed this concerto in Saint Petersburg between 1912 and 1913 as a memorial composition for a friend who had committed suicide, but the score was destroyed in a fire. He reconstructed that score during his time in Paris, between 1923 and 1924. Prokofiev himself played the debut of the reconstructed version under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky. The concerto was last performed by SFS with Yuja Wang conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in October of 2012.
Each of the concerto’s four movements has its own brand of wild and unbridled rhetorical qualities, particularly where dissonance is concerned.There are two extended cadenzas in the outer movements, whose scale comes close to dominating the entire movement in both cases. Yet there is clearly more to the concerto than extreme technical display. Prokofiev’s initial motif, played pizzicato by the strings, is almost inaudible; and it recedes into the background until the entire brass section revives it during that movement’s coda.
Taking such details into account, Kozhukhin and Orozco-Estrada made an excellent pair in demonstrating that the concerto was more than extreme dynamics and unrestrained technical display. Through their partnership one could recognize how this music had emerged from the shadow of a suicide. This was due, in no small part, to the fact that Orozco-Estrada had a clear sense of where he wanted the most powerful climaxes to be, both within each movement and in the overall four-movement structure.
For all of the outrageous dissonances on the surface, this is music that demands considerable preparation. It is no surprise that we have had to wait over half a decade since it was last performed. However, the balance of considered reasoning and impeccable execution last night made the wait worth the while.
Perhaps out of some sense of homecoming, Kozhukhin chose to play the same encore he had performed in 2014. This was the piano prelude in B minor composed by Alexander Siloti. This amounted to a “meditation” on Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 855, the E minor prelude from the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Siloti began by working his way through Bach’s text while enhancing it with nineteenth-century expressiveness; he then made a second pass, this time inventing an additional line of counterpoint. Kozhukhin was particularly effective in highlighting this line, making sure that listeners were aware that Siloti had done far more than simply transcribe his Bach source.
Siloti was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s first cousin. He also conducted the world premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor, the best known of the composer’s four concertos. It was therefore no surprise that Rachmaninoff should complement Prokofiev on the second half of the program. Orozco-Estrada conducted his Opus 27 (second) symphony in E minor.
If Prokofiev’s concerto never let a dissonance escape attention, one could say that no ounce of schmalz was neglected in the composition of Rachmaninoff’s symphony. Indeed, the third (Adagio) movement overflows with passionate rhetoric to such a degree that it should come with a cholesterol warning. Fortunately, Orozco-Estrada realized that he did not have to pour very much of his own expressiveness on top of what Rachmaninoff had already dished onto the plate. Instead, he chose to attend to providing a clear account of Rachmaninoff’s command of the full diversity of instrumental resources and his skill in managing those resources through both blending and interplay.
Let’s not kid ourselves, this is music that uses excess to tug at the listener’s heartstrings. Nevertheless, beneath those surface-level effects, there is more craftsmanship than one might be willing to recognize. Orozco-Estrada knew how to serve up the surface effects in a manner that did not overwhelm that underlying craftsmanship. Perhaps this was the reason why not only the audience but also the SFS members showed overt delight after the vigorous conclusion of the final movement.