Symphony's big bang

Jeremy Denk
The Bay Area Reporter

It is early in the San Francisco Symphony's new season, but Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas has already covered a lot of ground. With engaging appearances by strong guest artists and virtuosic playing by the orchestra, September concerts have set an exciting pace. Giving Hector Berlioz his place in the "Three Bs" of music (well, let's make that four now and counting) and adding Bartok and Bernstein to the list, MTT is reminding us how thrilling live performances of the classics can be, and started the season's celebration of Leonard Bernstein's birth centennial with a big bright bang.

Most recently, American pianist (and insightful writer) Jeremy Denk made a very organized and energetic attack on the Steinway at Davies Symphony Hall with a breathtaking and thoughtful interpretation of Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2. The composer may have intended a cheerful, albeit characteristically moody musical style, but he made daunting demands of the soloist and gave the orchestra (especially the horns) a heavy-duty assignment, too. Successfully moving through the drill of the busy piece with scarcely a hair out of place, the horns were precise and forceful, and Denk amazed the audience with his combination of control and understanding. His encore, from a Mozart Sonata, offered an astute contrast, returning everyone's blood pressure to normal, and cooling the piano down as well.

The temperature went right back up after intermission with a superbly crafted rendition of Berlioz's famous "Symphonie fantastique." MTT has a proven track record with the composer, and we have been treated to his affinity for the wildly popular Opus 14 before. He is still fascinated and obviously wants to share. We were treated to an instinctual reading that has been refined to an exquisite degree. The subtleties of the melodies were so sensuously expressed one could almost feel them, and the frightening impact of the bizarre final episodes roused the audience to a standing ovation.
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