Just after Valentine’s Day, love perfumed the Bay Area air, albeit with a twist. From Feb. 17 to Feb. 19, the San Francisco Symphony toyed with the theme of romance, performing a concert centered around selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. In foggy San Francisco, where we lay our scene, romance is not dead, but it’s much darker.
The night began with Maurice Ravel’s orchestral suite “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” The prelude opened with a feather light, twinkling motif that belied the piece’s fatalist theme — its English title is “The Grave of Couperin.” The four-section orchestral suite mulled over post-war trauma and traditions in eighteenth century French music. Ravel dedicated each of the suite’s sections to the memory of a fallen friend in the combat of World War I. The prelude swelled magically, the jaunty tempo and delicate sixteenth notes creating a delightfully strange and otherworldly affect.
Ravel’s forlane, the second movement of the program, waded through a darker mood. Salonen conducted with a careful eye to coax beauty from the strings’ lush legato passages. While the harp swooped in a bit boldly in the Menuet, the violins and violas seemed to sing, lyrical yet jaunty. The Menuet itself unfurled beautifully but a bit rote, as if on autopilot. Yet, the lively rigaudon eclipsed its underwhelming preceding section. The symphony buoyed on Ravel’s bold, joyful and seemingly carefree final chapter.
The quiet, perhaps repressed, figure of struggle in Ravel’s piece materialized in the physical performance demands of the concert’s subsequent piece. Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard joined the symphony on stage to perform Béla Bartók’s notoriously difficult Piano Concerto No. 2. It is no simple task to prepare to be the soloist of a Bartók piano concerto. In particular, the second concerto places rigorous demands on a musician’s sense of rhythm, voicing and technique; the piano solo, especially in the concerto’s second movement, stretches the hand into impossibly huge chords where every note matters.
Aimard thundered through Bartók’s passages with staggering precision. His performance left two distinct impressions, one from watching him play and the other from hearing his sound. Aimard thrusted his hands through wild, intensive runs and seemed to fly off his seat. Yet, the fortitude of his labor never contaminated the clarity or cleanness of his sound. He played with endless animacy. Salonen nurtured a cocoon of sound, the percussion bombastic and the piano tumbling toward its explosive end. As a curling and cresting wave of music, Bartók’s concerto was delightfully violent, a fitting work to anticipate the centerpiece of the concert.
Prokofiev put Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers into musical imagination with the intent for the piece to be a ballet. Naturally, the concert at Davies Symphony Hall featured no dancers, since the orchestra was on stage instead of in the pit. Yet, the concert wasn’t haunted by the specter of movement or bereft by its absence.
The symphony players entertained as they enlivened Prokofiev’s ferocious and famous score. The selection from the ballet explored a variety of tonal registers, character pieces and moods, capturing the larger-than-life essence of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Salonen conjured theatricality and excess, drumming up the hot-blooded feud and drawing out the fight’s brutality.
Without dance, the music tugged on audiences’ imagination, urging them to envision character and plot in musical evocation. Juliet’s youthful whimsy translated into fluttering strings, Tybalt’s death in urgently rhythmic percussion. The minuet and masks sections swelled with grandeur. It felt exciting to hear a famous score performed live, the shared sense of excitement since the most famous parts of the music are the most riotous.
Although love in Shakespeare’s Verona was a battlefield, the SF Symphony extracted beautiful and haunting moments from softer passages in the aubade and Juliet’s death, the latter of which was the finale. The symphony’s concert fanned the anticipatory flames for a different incoming arts event as the SF Ballet is set to perform Prokofiev’s full ballet in late April.