Yefim Bronfman, David Robertson perform Brahms, Haydn, Dean

Yefim Bronfman
San Francisco Examiner

By Mark Rudio

On paper the program for the San Francisco Symphony this evening looked so safe it could have been created by David Gockley. A Haydn symphony (No. 94, "Surprise"), the 2nd Brahms Piano Concerto and a contemporary work by Brett Dean entitled "Carlo" which initially seemed like a half-hearted attempt to balance the ultra-conservative program with something for the under-50 crowd. I wanted to attend the concert because the impressive Yefim Bronfman was the soloist, though I wasn't exactly eager to hear any Brahms, as we had a surfeit of him in 2008 (including the same concerto).

I should have known better since it's been my consistent experience with the SFS that the least promising-looking programs (to me) often deliver unexpected delights and cause me to re-assess my opinions about composers or performers. Last night's concert certainly did that as far as Brahms is concerned, thanks to a magnificent performance by Bronfman and strong conducting from David Robertson that had the orchestra sounding like they rarely got a chance to play this stuff and were relishing every moment.

The evening began with Dean's "Carlo" which features nineteen string players accompanied by electronic samples and recordings. Robertson at first looked rather odd keeping time to the pre-recorded track, which raised the question in my mind of what exactly is the role of the conductor in such works, but Roberston made his presence felt as the strings weaved their way through this interesting 25-minute piece whose themes are based on murder and madrigals. It's creepy, with whispers and dark chants coming up through the speakers as the strings play notes that start together and then spread out to become different voices. Although it's completely unlike last spring's electronic/ live performance of Mason Bates' "The B-Sides,"  like the Bates piece "Carlo" shows that crossing genres and erasing the lines around what defines a live performance can yield some really interesting music.

Haydn's "Surprise" symphony was given the treatment it richly deserves and Roberston gave the orchestra a chance to flex their muscle. Under his vigourous control they punched out a performance that ended with a musical exclamation point I've seldom heard. The fact that the entire orchestra was absolutely beaming when they were done says more than any words I could use to decribe it. It was classical music 101 delivered with total committment and pleasure.

Which brings us to Bronfman and Brahms. Last spring, Bronfman was here to perform Berg's daunting Piano Sonata and it was one of the most fascinating, epic performances I've ever witnessed so I was eager to see him again, though another performance of the Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto held no excitement for me. But together, Bronfman, Robertson and the orchestra made this warhorse come to vivid life. During the first two movements, with their accompanying large, dramatic, distinctly German walls of sound, it seemed like Bronfman just wanted to bludgeon it, giving a heavy hand to almost every part, really emphasizing the Romantic elements in the score and I write that without complaint.

It was a pleasant surprise when Bronfman received hearty (and sincere) applause after those two movements because if there was ever a time to do away with the convention of silence between movements, this was that time. Roberston, smiling over his shoulder, said "It will give him time to catch his breath!" His off-the-cuff remark reflected the spontaneity and vigor of the performance.

The Adante, featuring superb playing by cellist Peter Wyrick, was simply a gorgeous exchange of melodic ideas between the two instruments that slowly spread through the rest of the orchestra, which also had very strong outings from the winds and horns, with special props to flutist Tim Day. Bronfman demonstrated he can go as light on the keys as he can heavy, playing the movement with a surprising, though welcome, delicacy that still retained a sense of deliberate control throughout. The fourth movement started in flash and concluded in a robust flourish that again had the orchestra smiling and hearty ovations for Bronfman.