San Francisco Symphony opens a dialogue between old, new

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The evening of Oct. 5 brought fast-paced violins and impassioned movements to the patrons in Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Marek Janowski conducted the San Francisco Symphony through three complex pieces: Paul Hindemith’s “Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass, Opus 50,” Felix Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64” and Mozart’s “Symphony No. 41 in C major K. 551: Jupiter.” While the program seemed disjointed in terms of differences in era and style, the diversity of the pieces’ structures only worked to better show the multiplicity of talent the orchestra contains. 

With the initiation of the Hindemith piece, the brass section took control of the sound as it projected deep notes in full force. This framed the first movement, which Hindemith labeled “Part I,” with broad sweeping sounds. On top of the brass’s foundation, the strings layered ascending and descending runs, almost chromatic in sound. The brass throughout the piece held the reins in changing the tone and movement. The section members dictated the transitions and held the stage with their strength as a group, yet contained delicacy with their solos at the same time. Mark Inouye, principal trumpet, performed a moving solo throughout “Part I” and perfected an extremely colorful vibrato. 

The French horns performed beautifully and utilized their mutes (conical wooden plugs that are placed inside the bell to change the tone) well to create a new dimension of complexity for the small brass section. Toward the end of “Part I,” the mood abruptly diverted, dictated again by the French horns, as the orchestra brought out minor-key chords. The dissonance created reverberated around the concert hall before the trumpets joined to finish out the movement with a triumphant tone. 

Hindemith’s piece did not include traditional woodwinds — clarinets, flutes, oboes, bassoons — so the brass section had the additional space to demonstrate its prowess, which was refreshing in regards to traditional orchestral pieces. The ode to brass was an impactful way to introduce the evening and created a base for the next two selections to contrast with. 

The highlight of the program, Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64” was performed by María Dueñas, an extremely impressive soloist who garnered the crowd’s attention from her first note. At the age of 16, Dueñas contained a fierce passion during every movement of the Mendelssohn piece, regardless of whether the passage was andante (moderately slow) or allegretto (very lively and quick). Within the first 30 seconds of the first movement, Dueñas had already broken a string on her bow, so impassioned were her strokes. With deftness, she plucked the string off the bow and continued with her performance, maintaining a professional demeanor throughout. 

A brilliant soloist is one whose instrument is an extension of their own body, and Dueñas was no exception, as she and the violin naturally moved as one in moments of intense emotion. Dueñas took breaths between phrases as wind players do, which added another layer of intimacy to her instrument and her connection to the piece. 

The solo lasted almost a full 30 minutes, which did not include the additional passage she played as an encore. Dueñas’ stamina remained steady the whole time, deserving of applause in addition to the aptitude of her playing. The encore piece showed off Dueñas’ technical prowess, as it was mainly composed of fast-paced runs and complicated passages. Another string was broken, and the audience did not move a muscle throughout, as Dueñas was simply captivating. 

After intermission, the orchestra — now in higher numbers with woodwinds and a percussionist on the timpani — prepared itself to perform the Mozart piece. More traditional in comparison to the modern Hindemith piece, the Mozart piece finished out the evening in a pleasant manner. Pieces such as Mozart’s symphonies function to showcase each section of the orchestra in one wide, all-encompassing celebration of sound layering. There was constant movement, with each instrument working to complicate the musical themes within the piece. Mozart has a reputation for writing for the upper winds; the bassoons, oboes and flutes had the space during “Jupiter to add dimension to the piece through their solos. The richness of the passages where the music paired two of the winds together was incomparable in regards to the blending of sound. 

With this specific performance, the San Francisco Symphony and Janowski provided the audience with a wide range of pieces that utilized the different sections of the orchestra in order to create a variegated and enjoyable evening.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].