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Symphony visitors Oundjian, Wosner warrant call-backs

02.05.05
Shai Wosner
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Each year, the San Francisco Symphony plays a couple of weeks' worth of concerts with reduced forces, and it's an event that might have been tailor-made for guest conductor Peter Oundjian. Certainly Thursday's matinee in Davies Symphony Hall played right to his strengths as a performer.

The former first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet is pursuing an increasingly successful second career as a conductor. But chamber habits die hard, and in his second Symphony appearance, he again elicited close-knit, wonderfully fluid playing from the musicians.

In a pair of symphonies by Haydn and Mozart, Oundjian rejected any hint of grandiosity in favor of self-contained, crisply focused readings. Sharp-edged phrases and clipped, unfussy rhythms provided a canvas on which the music's underlying expressivity could be played out.

That was especially true in Mozart's G-Minor Symphony, which occupied the second half of the program. The two outer movements sounded limber and quirky, as the music's unruly energy seemed to strain against the regularity of its phrase structures before breaking out in the development sections. The slow movement was a crystalline gem of delicacy and fervor.

Haydn's Symphony No. 82, "The Bear" -- a symphony without a slow movement-- inspired Oundjian's fleetest reading of the afternoon, all whimsy and forward momentum. The tuneful, ambling finale, whose gruff bass drone may have inspired the piece's nickname, was particularly entertaining.

The afternoon's soloist was Shai Wosner, a fascinating Israeli-born pianist who brought nimble technique and dry wit to Mozart's D-Major Rondo, K. 382, and to the first Symphony performance of Chopin's Op. 2, the bravura set of variations on Mozart's "Là ci darem la mano."

Chopin's flashy showpiece -- the score that incited Schumann to publish the legendary critical accolade "Hats off, gentlemen, a genius" - abounds with opportunities for display, not only of bare-knuckled keyboard virtuosity but for graceful melodic phrasing as well, and Wosner made the most of them. His mastery of Chopin's passagework was flawless, and he lavished plenty of elegance on the score's less glittery sections.

Still, it was disappointing to read in the program biography of Wosner's devotion to the contemporary repertoire (including György Ligeti's masterful Piano Concerto) and then to hear him in this comparatively frothy material. A return visit is clearly in order.