Arts & Events

Nicola Benedetti Plays Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday March 31, 2017 - 03:44:00 PM

Born in Scotland of Italian heritage, Nicola Benedetti is hailed as one of the top violinists in the world. She won the 2012 prize for Best Female Artist given by the classical BRIT Awards. On Sunday afternoon, March 26, Nicola Benedetti joined with the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas in Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. A work noted for its soaring lyricism, this G minor Violin Concerto by Bruch was given a superb performance by Nicola Benedetti, who combined sumptuous tone and a keen sensitivity to the nuances of this music. Her delicate phrasing of the beautiful Adagio was matched by the fiery elegance of her interpretation of the Finale. Nor should we neglect her outstanding rendition of Bruch’s lyrical first movement. Playing a 1717 Gariel Stradivarius violin, Nicola Benedetti gave a ravishing account of Max Bruch’s gift for writing beautiful music for the violin. As an encore, Ms. Benedetti offered what she announced as a gift from her native Scotland, the original version of Robert Burns’ well-loved song, “Auld Lang Syne,” which she played with great feeling. 

Preceding the Bruch concerto was a 15-minute work by John Cage, The Seasons. Inspired by Cage’s interest in Indian philosophy, The Seasons depicts each of the four seasons as they are characterized in traditional Indian thought. Winter is quiescent, Spring brings creativity, Summer offers preservation, and Fall brings destruction. The Seasons was written in 1947 for Merce Cunnigham’s dance company. The music is, in turns, shimmering, gurgling, twittering, occasionally raucous, but mostly gentle. Alas, however, MTT indulged his puerile penchant for gussying up certain pieces of music with special effects video material. Video Director Clyde Scott offered largely abstract bits of video nonsense projected on five screens, and Lighting Designer Luke Kritzeck used a different dominant color for each of the four seasons. Kritzeck also stationed light posts throughout the orchestra with 8 or 9 small bulbs arrayed vertically that sparkled a different shade of light for each season. All this quirky visual material was just an unwanted distraction from the music itself. Will MTT ever learn to let the music speak for itself? His efforts to be ‘new’ and Hollywood hip are getting old fast. This is beginning to be a major flaw in his tenure here. Are we approaching the time to begin thinking of a post-MTT San Francisco Symphony? 

After intermission, MTT returned to conduct Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, this work was written by Bartók in New York in 1943 at a time when, suffering from a severe illness, he had nearly given up composing music. Bartók wrote his Concerto for Orchestra in the style inaugurated by Paul Hindemith in 1923, that is, as a concerto where different sets of instruments get to share the spotlight at different moments with the orchestra as a whole. The first movement is suffused with melancholy. Cellos and basses open the work with a first theme, and a second is given to the flute. This latter is then taken up by the trumpet. The second movement, entitled Gioco delle coppie (“Game of Couples”) features five different pairs of wind instruments in the following order: bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and muted trumpets. The third movement, entitled Elegy, offers an example of Bartók’s penchant for writing “night music.” Here the mood is one of a mysterious sadness, with low strings, high winds, and a harp. Next comes an Interrupted Intermezzo featuring the oboe. The Finale is a Hungarian rondo, full of verve and energy expressing a victory over the pessimism of the first and third movements. In 1945, two years after its premiere, Bartók revised this piece, lengthening the finale. In my view this was a mistake. In its definitive form, the Finale seems interminably long and drawn out far beyond this material’s modest merits. Nonetheless, MTT led the orchestra in a convincing account of Bartók’s occasionally brilliant but somewhat spotty Concerto for Orchestra. 

Correction: In my review of Friday, March 24, I misidentified the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra as the St. Petersburg Symphony. My apologies for the misnomer.