San Francisco Symphony gives erratic interpretation of Stravinsky, Ogonek

Photo of SF symphony's Stravinsky concert
Brandon Patoc/Courtesy

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The Davies Symphony Hall stage became inundated with titanic tactility March 10, as the San Francisco Symphony married pieces old and new for an overwhelming afternoon repertoire. Each of the program’s three pieces ran an impressive length, but under the guidance of conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra pulled off the feat with intricate execution. 

Elizabeth Ogonek, an American contemporary composer, flew in from New York to introduce her piece “Sleep & Unremembrance” by reciting the poem that inspired its conception: “While Sleeping” by the late Polish writer Wisława Szymborska. The poem weaved together allusions to the mind navigating the mystical archive of memory in dreams. Ogonek’s piece replicated the delicacy of Szymborska’s lines, set to cascading string crescendos and the daze of dreams replicated by shimmering harp and mallets. 

Renowned violinist Leila Josefowicz took to the stage in a grand manner, with her patterned patchwork skirt filling the stage with zany personality. Butterfly clips pinned Josefowicz’s hair back, framing her face — which was necessary considering her insanely outward emotional playing. From the first stroke made by Josefowicz’s bow, her eyebrows raised in stunned shock and continued to move with great interest for the remainder of her rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. 

Josefowicz, the 2008 Macarthur recipient, proved her creative genius throughout the 22-minute piece. The performance utilized every muscle of her figure, sparking spontaneity and joy. During quick, intricate passages, a mischievous smile arose on Josefowicz’s face — as if letting everyone in on a sly inside joke. 

Unlike other soloists who have taken to the Davies stage this past season, Josefowicz leant back as she pulled out massive notes with unmatched textural tonality. In the final movement, she turned toward the bassoon with which she shared the melody to physically open up a dialogue with the jaunty, rich notes. Her bow strokes at the base of her violin’s neck at times extracted a tangy terror. Josecowicz managed to break not one, not two but three strings, which she handled with the trained grace of a true master. 

Elsewhere on stage, principal timpani player Edward Stephan stuck out, in both form and function. In the Stravinksy concerto, the timpani notes scattered here and there, but Stephan stood with arms crossed in the middle of the back riser — sticking out with a stern countenance. The performance of “Rite of Spring” finally granted Stephan the space to command attention, as he enunciated the piece with precise mallet beats, demonstrating deft swiftness to silence each drum face. 

After intermission, the stage staggered with musicians, as plenty more string players and percussionists stepped forward to give Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” the attention it deserved. The symphony and Salonen seemed to be amping themselves up for the physical venture that is performing the 17 movements that move through a wide depth of emotions and skills. 

The layered start, with the flute’s soothing and pastoral melody, complicates with the tension from the strings — a slight dissonance darkening the passage. Joined in by the rich yet taut oboe, the introduction to “The Rite of Spring” overwhelmed the stage. 

Swelling strings framed the entire piece and created an impressive optical illusion; the many bows moving in sync looked like the fluttering of a winged butterfly swarm about to take flight. The winds’ fluttering trills almost lifted the stage up towards the reflective plastic panels that mirrored the symphony’s arching image. Through the movements — each flashing by with intensely variegated mood, tempo and tone — the notes that sprung forth from different sections of the orchestra created a scattered sense of direction, the sound seeming to spiral. 

 The brass section shone in “The Rite of Spring,” especially during movements when the trumpets sang out a romantic declaration. Character came through from the french horns adding in small announcements between more serious lines — further complicating the emotional range of the piece. 

After the hour had passed, although the time seemed to zip by, Salonen’s blushing cheeks and shining brow signified the completion of Stravinsky’s daunting musical challenge. The symphony rose to the occasion throughout the performance, and left the audience stunned and in a standing ovation.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.