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San Francisco Symphony visits Mondavi with Russian program

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From page A15 | October 05, 2011 |

 Conductor James Conlon will lead the San Francisco Symphony when it performs an all-Russian concert Thursday, Oct. 13, in Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. Courtesy photo

Check it out

What: San Francisco Symphony’s all-Russian concert; a pre-performance talk featuring conductor James Conlon will begin at 7 p.m.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13

Where: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts

Tickets: $50-$89 general, $25-$44.50 students; www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787

The San Francisco Symphony — which has been in continuous celebration mode for about a month, marking the start of the orchestra’s 100th anniversary season — comes to the Mondavi Center on Thursday, Oct. 13, with an all-Russian concert.

The program will be anchored by an evergreen favorite with audiences — Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (orchestrated by the French composer Maurice Ravel) — paired with  another work that is a rare catch in the concert hall — the moody Symphony No. 14 of Dmitri Shostakovich, with two vocal soloists from Russia, veteran baritone Sergei Leiferkus and soprano Olga Guryakova.

At the podium will be American-born conductor James Conlon, who holds the post of music director with the Los Angeles Opera, where Conlon conducted Wagner’s “Ring” cycle of operas last year. Conlon also appears as conductor with major orchestras around the world, and he also plays a significant role in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, held every four years, where Conlon conducts the final round of performances in which the pianists perform with an orchestra.

In a recent interview with the French news organization AFP,  Conlon said he views his assignments with opera companies and symphony orchestras in rather similar terms.

“I rehearse intensely everywhere I am. I come in the morning, I leave at midnight, almost every day,” he said. “For me, an opera house and a symphony orchestra need the same kind of commitment. There is absolutely no difference in the way that I make music or conduct, because in essence, the primary relationship of the director, the artist, is with the music itself.”

Tenor Placido Domingo — who is general director of Los Angeles Opera, and sometimes sings there under Conlon’s baton — recently praised Conlon’s “uncanny understanding of voices … singers love to collaborate with him. I certainly do. I love the energy he brings.”

Shostakovich wrote his 14th Symphony during the wintry early months of 1969, when he was in his early 60s and experiencing intimations of his own mortality. The composer, who was a heavy smoker suffering from high blood pressure, had spent three weeks in a cardiac clinic the preceding year. A further bout of ill health put Shostakovich in the hospital for several weeks as he was composing the music that eventually became the 14th Symphony.

“I composed the work very quickly, fearing that while I was occupied with it something might happen to me, for example my right hand might finally cease to work altogether, or I might suddenly go blind, or something like that,” Shostakovich wrote to a colleague.

The Shostakovich 14th is a moody artistic response to Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death,” a chamber work from the 1870s that Shostakovich had orchestrated in the early 1960s. For his response, Shostakovich drew on 11 different poems, all dealing with themes of love and death, by Federico García Lorca, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilhelm Küchelbeker and Rainer Maria Rilke.

During the early stages of composition, Shostakovich considered billing the piece — scored for strings, percussion, and two singers — as an oratorio, but eventually decided to classify it as a symphony instead.

Perhaps because of its gloomy subject matter, the Shostakovich 14th is one of those works that is more commonly encountered in recorded form than in the concert hall. The Oct. 13 concert at the Mondavi Center will be the San Francisco Symphony’s first public performance of the piece.

Baritone Sergei Leiferkus, a veteran who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and other major opera companies, recorded the Shostakovich 14th with the Gothenburg Symphony under conductor Neemi Järvi on the Deutsche Grammophon label in 1993.

On the other hand, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in Ravel’s orchestration, is heard frequently — local audiences may remember that the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra performed the piece under conductor Christian Baldini in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall in February 2010. (Video of that performance can be seen at http://www.uctv.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=18158), and there are literally dozens of commercial recordings.)

The San Francisco Symphony has come in for nationwide attention during the past few weeks as a result of the orchestra’s 100th anniversary. The Wall Street Journal published a piece last month describing the orchestra as “a centenarian fit as a fiddle” and one of America’s “world-class orchestras.”

The article also singled out “the gleaming tone, pinpoint intonation and evocative phrasing of principal trumpet Mark Inouye’s solos.” Local audiences take some pride in the knowledge that Inouye is a Davis High School graduate who went on to study at UC Davis, majoring in civil engineering, before he left to enroll in The Juilliard School and become a professional musician.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8055.

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