With Slovakian conductor Juraj Valčuha at the helm from Nov. 3 to 6, the SF Symphony showcased the divine works of Hannah Kendall, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The symphony’s rich, exuberant sounds tumultuously transported audiences through time, from 1800s London to 1940s Russia.
The concert took place in the lavish Davies Symphony Hall, opening with a piece titled “The Spark Catchers,” by the London-born composer Hannah Kendall. Originally commissioned and premiered at the 2017 BBC Proms, the piece is inspired by an 1888 worker strike held by the women and girls who worked at a match factory in East London. Despite it being the SF Symphony’s first performance of the piece, they succeed at capturing its dark and cinematic quality, bursting into the flurry of rhythmic staccato that immediately reeled the audience into the macabre world of the match factory. Occasionally, it felt like the piece was lacking a little ferocity, but its high energy still made for a powerful opener.
Following this performance was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op. 16, a 30-minute piece consisting of four movements. To aid in the reproduction of the Ukrainian composer’s work, the orchestra was accompanied by the Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov, who, at the young age of 32, has performed with some of the world’s best symphony orchestras. Abduraimov stunned from start to finish, adding opulence to the already spectacular sound. The first movement began with a rich conversation between piano and strings that undulated with glorious intensity. Tonally, this piece was difficult to pin down, but this only made it even more captivating.
However, the pinnacle of the second movement fell toward the end where Abduraimov tackled an incredibly daring and lengthy cadenza — it left the audience’s eyes wide, their jaws permanently dropped as if on a loose hinge. There were shocking points during his performance that made it almost impossible to believe that such an immense sound could be produced from just two hands: Abduraimov truly breathed life into music that was momentarily lost during the Russian Revolution.
Concluding with a whirlwind finale, the triumph of Abduraimov’s performance resulted in a long standing ovation that begged for an encore — which, once received, did little in the way of satiating the audience’s appetite.
The titular performance “Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances” closed the show. Russian-born Rachmaninoff composed the dances in 1940 after a three-year hiatus; he died in 1942, making the symphonic dances his final composition. The first movement haunted with a beautifully melancholic sound conjured by soft flutes. Soon, it broke into a turbulent march in order to reflect upon the pain of failure that was felt after Rachmaninoff’s first disastrous symphony in 1897.
It was during the second half of Rachmaninoff’s dances that the conductor Valčuha unquestionably found his stride as he moved with each intricate sound of the deep and eerie waltz. Valčuha is currently the music director of the Houston Symphony and the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples; with such an extensive career, his expertise shone through during this spectacular performance.
The combination of the transcendent music and stunning venue made for a truly exceptional experience. For future shows by the SF Symphony, it would be wonderful to see a drive to encourage young people to attend the performances; everyone should be able to witness the symphony’s grandeur. The two hour performance led the audience through worlds of horror, mystery, fantasy and wonder with effortless fluidity. Combining Valčuha’s enchanting expertise with Abduraimov’s piano mastery, the performance was a particularly special one.