Music Review: SCHUBERT 5 & DESSNER VIOLIN CONCERTO (Pekka Kuusisto, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the SF Symphony)

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by Harvey Perr on October 22, 2021

in Music,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Last night, I had the rare and honored experience of being present at what I think may have been an historic musical event. It was the first United States performance of Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto (2021) which was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, and which, under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, emerged as one of the most strangely beautiful and compelling musical pieces in recent memory. Let me say that my expertise is theater, not music, but I cannot deny the power of feeling a thrill go up one’s spine, which implies that any art form is, in a sense, theatrical. There is dramatic weight in creating that kind of bravura excitement.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony, featuring Pekka Kuusisto
performing Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto [San Francisco Symphony Commission, U.S. Premiere]
at Davies Symphony Hall on October 21, 2021

And exciting it was, primarily because the Finnish violinist, Pekka Kuusisto, for whom the remarkably versatile Dressner wrote the concerto, is an authentic genius, a violinist of prodigious talent. His dazzling display of feeling and technique took the music to not always predictable shifts in emotional range and back again. His performance, as exquisite as it was at times and as ferocious as it was at other times, did in no way overshadow the fact that the entire concerto was so musically both explosive and ruminative, using the full orchestra in fresh and innovative ways, and, despite all its imagination and invention, clearly defining it as a contemporary piece, was always grounded in classical form. It was, all told, a major event.

This is not meant to deny the brilliance of the entire evening. Salonen brought boldness and authority to his elegant interpretation of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2, Opus 72, the second of the four overtures the composer wrote for his opera which gained its fame as Fidelio, which, incidentally, is being performed across the street from Davies Hall at the Opera House.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485, created, unbelievably, when the composer was barely twenty years old, is and was sublime. If the Andante movement moved me most, it was that, in its quiet way, it best expressed the sublimity of the whole performance under Salonen’s beautifully controlled and sympathetic approach to the score. The most familiar strains, in the Menuetto: Allegro molto movement, provided more pleasure, perhaps, but they flowed so elegantly from theme to theme, that it would be absurd to say it wasn’t as lyrically lovely as the Andante. The entire symphony was grand to hear and brought the evening to a glorious end.

But it is Dressner’s concerto and Kuusisto’s virtuoso performance that reverberated long after I left the symphony hall.

photos by Stefan Cohen

Schubert 5 and Dessner Violin Concerto
San Francisco Symphony | Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue
ends on October 23, 2021
for tickets, call 415-864-6000 or visit SFS

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