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San Francisco Chamber Orchestra ends the year with virtuosity

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Yesterday afternoon in the Nourse Theater, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO) continued its 2013–2014 Main Stage Concert season with a program entitled The Virtuosi. The program presented performances by a seasoned virtuoso pianist, the emerging virtuosity of the season’s Debut Artist, and an overture by the leading virtuoso of the eighteenth century. The individuals cited in that last sentence are, in sentence order, pianist Jon Nakamatsu, winner of the Gold Medal at the 1997 Van Cliburn Competition, eighteen-year-old double bassist Jared Pabilona, and the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Nakamatsu performed as soloist in a concerto long recognized as a platform for virtuoso display, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 22 in G minor, the composer’s second piano concerto. However, it was immediately apparent from the opening prelude, with its reflection on Johann Sebastian Bach, that Nakamatsu was interested in more than display. Yes, he could rattle off his allegro passages at a lightning pace; and, when the orchestra roared at the piano with one of Saint-Saëns’ fortissimo passages, Nakamatsu could roar right back at it.

Nevertheless, beneath that surface-level dramatism there lay a solid foundation of clarity of execution, often realized through meticulous attention to dynamic level. All this was executed with a quiet poise that was a welcome relief from those many “virtuosi” (left unnamed) ,who seem to feel that body choreography is as important as technical skill. This was a performance that clearly understood that there was music behind the flashy exhibitionism. Nakamatsu made that music his highest priority; and it was equally clear that, in his approach to conducting SFCO, Benjamin Simon was with him every step of the way.

Pabilona’s selection was Giovanni Bottesini’s second double bass concerto in B minor. In my preview article for the season, I referred to Bottesini as having been called the Paganini of the double bass. This may well have been true in matters of his capacity for technical execution. However, I have to confess that, when it comes to concertos and chamber music, I have always been quite comfortable rating Bottesini over Niccolò Paganini. While Paganini tended to relish long orchestral introductions that seemed deliberately tedious for the sake of building up expectation for the soloist, Bottesini took a no-nonsense approach of getting down to business without titillating the audience.

At the same time, he had a sense of wit that seemed to recognize the superficiality of mere display. Thus, while his capacity for thematic invention may never have been as sophisticated as that of his witty predecessor, Joseph Haydn, he still knew how to lay down a foundation of solid musicality upon which the soloist’s platform of virtuosity could stand securely. Yesterday, I was particularly struck by Bottesini’s decision to begin the middle Andante movement with what sounded like a woodwind quintet, using the most lyric portion of his concerto to highlight his solo instrument through contrasting sonorities.

To acclimate his audience to those bass sonorities, Simon invited SFCO bass Michel Taddei to the front of the stage to perform two short duos with Pabilona. These were composed by David Anderson and nicely prepared the audience for the wit that would follow in the Bottesini concerto. That wit originated in Anderson’s choice of titles: “Kibbles and Kibitz” and “The Parade of the Politically Prudent Pigs.” Both of these abounded in clearly comic gestures, but the emphasis was on a polished duo sound with a bit of jazzy klezmer rhetoric. Pabilona’s chemistry with Taddei thus provided a foretaste of the cultivated sound he summoned to engage with SFCO in his concerto performance.

The program began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s overture for his K. 492 opera The Marriage of Figaro. Simon led SFCO in a brisk and crisply clear account in this overture that only barely hints at the music that will follow in the opera itself. Here again the audience was treated to all the nuances that arise from acute attention to dynamic level, and it is through those nuances that opera-goers are prepared for the uncanny synthesis of comedy with dramatic passion that will follow.

Simon also concluded the afternoon with a season-appropriate encore. This was a performance of the “Radetzky” march, composed for Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, Field Marshal of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by Johann Strauss Sr. in 1848. When performed in a Viennese concert setting, particularly the annual New Year Concert, it is traditionally accompanied by foot-stamping and hand-clapping; and Simon was not shy in encouraging clapping from the audience for the primary melody. (There seemed to be a collective intuition to refrain when the orchestra played all the figures that alternate with this melody.)

Taken as a whole, this was a delightful combination of solo and orchestral talents, providing a generous dose of high spirits for the transition from 2013 to 2014.


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