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Auspicious debut for San Francisco Symphony at SSU's Green Music Center

Music Director Micihael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony and pianist Yefim Bronfman in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor" Thursday night at Sonoma State University's Weill Hall.

KRISTEN LOKEN
Published: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 2:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 2:01 p.m.

Fresh from a two-week tour of Asia and a Grammy nomination, the San Francisco Symphony under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas swept into the Green Music Center Thursday night with an alluring program and a legendary pianist that not only filled the house but repeatedly brought the crowd to its feet.

Thursday's concert was a watershed moment for the newly opened Weill Hall at Sonoma State University, which also serves as the home of the Santa Rosa Symphony, its resident orchestra.

The program marked the first of a series of four concerts in the hall this season planned by the world-class San Francisco orchestra.

“We're delighted to share this historic evening with you,” Thomas said, addressing the audience. “We're thrilled to open your new space - our new space — together.”

The musical program offered a little something for everyone: a classical concerto by Beethoven, a romantic tone poem by Richard Strauss, and the premiere of a dazzling new work by the symphony's Assistant Concertmaster, Mark Volkert.

But more importantly, it played to the sensitive acoustics of the hall with pieces featuring smaller orchestrations. That often resulted in crystal-clear sound, especially in the pianissimo range.

For sheer auditory pleasure, the concert's high point came after intermission when Soviet-born, Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor,” with a measured and meticulous touch.

As Scott Foglesong, chair of musicanship and music theory at the San Franciso Conservatory of Music, explained in his pre-concert lecture, Beethoven wanted the soloist and orchestra to become one in the concerto, like a tapestry.

Bronfman played with a business-like poise and restraint, rarely calling attention to himself while making every note appear effortless.

Under his powerhouse fingers, the phrases flowed together in one long, seamless arc, from the opening bars to the finale. The delicate, piannissimo passages in the Adagio movement, particularly leading up to the finale, were particularly sublime.

In terms of innovation, the high point of the evening came before intermission with Volkert's “Pandora,” a virtuosic work for strings that was played for the first time the night before at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall.

The composer, who has served as a violinist in the orchestra since 1972, sat in the audience during the 20-minute work, which includes unusual cadenzas for double bass, cello, viola, second and first violin principals.

Echoes of composers such as Gustav Mahler and Hector Berlioz, Bela Bartok and Aaron Copland can be heard in the opus, which tells the story of the Pandora myth. Yet Volkert's voice remains original, a bridge between old and new that charms as it challenges.

The concert launched with a big, orchestral showpiece — Strauss' scampish “Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks” — featuring a colorful array of orchestral timbres, including one of the most celebrated horn passages in the repertoire. Thomas led the loose, two-theme rondo with relaxed, economical movements, ending with a quick hop.

Yet it was the audience that jumped up and down the most.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com

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