What may be the most impressive attribute of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO), or at least the current ensemble led by Wattis Foundation Music Director Donato Cabrera, is their ability to summon up an impressively wide diversity of sonorities, always finding the right balance of instrumental contributions to suit the needs of the piece they happen to be playing. This was the salient feature of this afternoon’s concert in Davies Symphony Hall. The occasion as a “Bon Voyage” event, presenting music that will be performed during a six-concert European tour that is about to begin.
As might be guessed, SFSYO’s sonorous skills were best displayed with the major work on the program, Hector Berlioz’ Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique,” the only piece programmed to follow the intermission. The very logic of this composition depends on sonority and the ways in which Berlioz could translate the functionality of consonance and dissonance into the interplay of smoothly integrated sounds and blatantly disruptive ones. Much has been made, due in no small part to the titles Berlioz assigned to the movements, of the narrative behind the notes, so to speak: the dark side of a love that amounts to an obsession (realized through the idée fixe theme, which appears in a different guise in every movement) with an unattainable woman that eats away at a mind the has most likely been eroded by opium or some similar substance. However, the listener who holds this hypertrophied melodrama at arms length will find some of the most imaginative approaches to instrumentation ever entered into the literature of the repertoire.
Berlioz’ devices are so legion that one cannot help but discover new ones each time one experiences this piece in performance (rather than at the mercy of recording engineers, who tend to be more interested in the uniformity of the package than any outrageously distinguishing features). Today’s revelatory encounter involved the use of a solo trumpet near the end of the second (waltz) movement, sounding a bit like someone who lost his way to the bandshell in the park. To be fair, I was not particularly surprised to find this part absent in my Heugel pocket score. However, that is a very old document; so I may well have encountered something that only surfaced more recently in a new scholarly edition. Regardless of its origin, it was yet another sonorous ingredient to suggest just how warped a mind Berlioz was depicting in this symphony.
Sonority was also of the essence in the opening selection, Mason Bates’ “Garages of the Valley.” The “Valley” is, of course, Silicon Valley; and this piece, first performed a little over a year ago, can be taken as Bates’ latest “technology tone poem,” preceded by works such as “Alternative Energy” and “Mass Transmission.” Writing about this new piece, Bates observed that he was particularly interested in the techniques of the French composer Gérard Grisey. Grisey called his approach to composition “spectral;” and it amounted to using the blending of instruments as an alternative to electronic synthesis. Bates was particularly skilled at eliciting “electronic” sonorities without drawing upon any digital or analog technology in his instrumentation.
While this made for impressive sound effects, it was unclear what those effects served. Both “Alternative Energy” and “Mass Transmission” were structured around “narratives of progress;” but this did not seem to be the case for “Garages of the Valley.” One reason may be that any narrative about Silicon Valley is at least 95% imaginative fiction. While it is certainly true that the Hewlett-Packard Company was “born” in a one-car garage in Palo Alto, the generalization of that story to all of Silicon Valley is about as fantastic as the drug-induced narrative behind Berlioz’ symphony. In this case, however, the fantasy has less to do with opium and more to do with the imagination of the Stanford Business School! Nevertheless, “Garages of the Valley” was only about ten minutes in duration; and Cabrera approached it with a keen sense of how to blend the sonorities of the SFSYO musicians.
The concerto on the program was Max Bruch’s Opus 26 (first) violin concerto in G minor with Elena Urioste as soloist. Sadly, she will not be joining SFSYO on the tour, during which Sergey Khachatryan and Renaud Capuçon will perform as soloist at different venues. I say “sadly” because I have not previously listened to a violinist as expressive as Urioste when it came to the use of soft dynamics. This was apparent from her very first measures, which is one of the trickiest opening gestures in the violin repertoire. She knew exactly where she wanted her stress points to be and how to withdraw from them to a level that was practically a whisper. This is one of those “warhorse” concertos that all violinists must master; but Urioste personalized her approach to deliver an interpretation like no other. Cabrera clearly grasped this and knew exactly how to provide the appropriate levels of instrumental support and how to use Bruch’s choices of instrumentation to highlight Urioste’s solo sonorities.
All this made for a highly satisfying afternoon, suggesting the SFSYO is likely to raise more than a few eyebrows during its visit to Europe.