Dynamic duo gives Symphony a charge
Not all the superheroes are onscreen at the cineplex these days, no matter how much it may seem like it as you scan the arts and entertainment section. In Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 11, conductor Manfred Honeck and the San Francisco Symphony, with a ready assist from the Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk, put on a little show of heroism all their own. The demonstration was twofold. During the concert’s meaty first half, Mørk and the orchestra faced down the pitfalls of a potentially problematic piece, Prokofiev’s late Sinfonia Concertante, drawing out all its considerable splendors without getting sidetracked by its equally daunting flaws.
Then after intermission, Honeck — the Austrian conductor who currently leads the Pittsburgh Symphony and (for all we know) may be in the running to succeed Michael Tilson Thomas after he steps down in 2020 — guided the orchestra through a superbly forceful and weighty account of Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8.
The common thread was the that vein ran through of muscular the entire boldness program, bringing brawn to even the most lyrical passages and a spirit of can-do determination to the program overall. Like a superhero movie, this isn’t the kind of approach one would want as an exclusive diet, but it certainly packs a refreshing punch. Mørk’s appearance marked the 57-year-old artist’s astonishingly overdue Symphony debut and served as a reminder of just how much local audiences have been missing. (And not just local audiences — Mørk was sidelined for several years by health problems that seem to have only recently abated.) He’s an instrumentalist of both energy and subtlety, with a vigorous approach and a gift for combining intimate expressiveness with a certain gritty urgency. Aside from some squishy intonation in the upper register, technical challenges seem to hold no terrors for him, and he showed his ability to bring the potential sprawl of the Prokofiev into crisp focus. It’s a piece that calls for all those tools. Written in 1950 for the young Mstislav Rostropovich, the Sinfonia Concertante (or Symphony-Concerto) recycles material from the composer’s Cello Concerto of 20 years earlier. The transformation was a mixed blessing; the new piece shows the imprint of Rostropovich’s genius in its technical bravura and emotional warmth, but it also tends to meander and (like much of Prokofiev’s late music) can sound pallid and diffuse without the proper care. Mørk and Honeck collaborated to make the best possible case for the music. In the enormous, multifold first movement, they stitched together the various paragraphs so that they flowed together with, if not logical coherence, at least a Scheherazade-like narrative pull. Mørk dispatched the big cadenzas beautifully, giving their fullbodied chords and intricately wrought bluster a show of force, and brought lyrical grace to the work’s melodic interludes. In the Dvorák, Honeck wasted no time in demonstrating the kind of clean, coiled power he could bring to this repertoire. The first two movements were both imbued with impeccably controlled heft, especially from the strings; not even a midstream break after the second movement to deal with a patron’s faulty hearing aid could impede the galvanic flow of the performance. The finale, launched by trumpeter Mark Inouye with a blazing initial fanfare, felt like a summing-up of the entire concert.
Pittsburgh’s Manfred Honeck was the guest conductor.
Truls Mørk played Sinfonia Concertante by Prokofiev.