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Perfect pairing at Davies

Radu Lupu
San Jose Mercury News

Radu Lupu is a brother from another planet: that blanked-out mystic's gaze; that cotton-on-ivory touch he has on the piano. Given how full of marvels was his performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in San Francisco on Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall, it seems almost unfair not to make him this review's centerpiece.

But he can wait, because the truest and longest-burning star of the night was the San Francisco Symphony's guest conductor, Lawrence Foster, one of those world-traveling conductors who somehow, inexplicably and unjustly, never quite make it to the top of the A List. His first performance with the orchestra in five years was memorable.

Foster is small and compact and a real manager (let's be truthful: a micro-manager) of orchestral detail. His moves are precise, easy to follow. He is always in motion, at times almost overactive, his arms beating like bird's wings, often swan-like, his gestures sculptural, shaping things. And Wednesday, you could sense his rapport with the orchestra; the players gave him what he wanted.

For many conductors, Haydn's Symphony No. 95 would just be a perky thing, humdrum due to over-familiarity. Foster made it blaze with tautness and shiny, clean lines. The Allegro moderato was sleek and hearty; the Andante a golden give-and-take between the high and low strings. There were lots of long pauses and perfect re-entrances, not to mention hushes and shadings and bold, dynamic contrasts.

Principal cellist Michael Grebanier's solo during the Menuet was bouncy and elegant and a little rakish, and here Foster momentarily stepped back from his micro-managerial methods, letting Grebanier do his thing.

But Foster is cagey; he already had drawn the orchestra into his frame of mind, and the players didn't back off from minding the details. The Vivace finale was a controlled storm, evenly balanced, gleaming with symmetry.

And then out stepped Lupu, with his scrubby monk's beard and far-off look -- the polar opposite of Foster, who is Mr. Efficiency. Lupu sat down in a molded-plastic office chair, barely managing to jam his knees under the piano, and leaned back, looking lost or bored.

The orchestra began with a push and pull, real tension, sturdy yet light-footed. And then Lupu began: soft, fluttery and soulful, his fingers seeming to trace out a mystery, even though he probably has played this piece a thousand times.

He and Foster kept looking at one another. Would there be a clash of styles, of efficiency and eccentricity? If there was a moment or two of hesitancy, it quickly dissolved.

Foster showed how adaptable he is, backing off a shade, allowing Lupu to breathe, to accelerate, cruise and downshift, the strings shadowing the pianist beautifully through all three movements.

Lupu kept humming to himself, too, and gazing here and there -- into the front rows of the audience or, more often, back toward the winds. Hard to say, but he seemed to be nodding cues to flutist Robin McKee, whose lines partnered his own. What a character.

And then there were his cadenzas: granite spurts in the bass, angelic dustings in the right hand, the whole effect one of stenciled clarity, but somehow gauzy, too, with great attention to melody and contour.

It was an emotionally vivid performance. When it was over, Lupu, a Romanian, gave Foster, an American of Romanian extraction, a big hug.

I'd expected that half the audience would leave after this, because the second half of the program was to include a big piece by Roberto Gerhard, a modernist whose music rarely is played, and then some fluff by Falla. But after intermission, most everyone had stayed, perhaps waiting to see where Foster would take them next.

Gerhard, a Catalan who taught in the United States and spent 30 years in England, wrote his Concerto for Orchestra in 1965. It owes a lot to Varése and Schoenberg and is constructed tight as a puzzle, with a million clashes and intersections of planes, textures and shades of light.

It darts about with a riot of special effects and a battery of exotic percussion and sets massive virtuoso demands on the orchestra. Perfect for a detail man like Foster, who perhaps wanted to show off with it.

Oddly, he didn't. Instead of trying to mind every detail (impossible, ultimately), he brandished his baton like Luke Skywalker's lightsaber, maybe simply to keep a clean signal going amid the commotion of the score.

This was the first time the orchestra had played the piece and while it did a good job, it wasn't perfect. And this is a piece that requires perfection, or something close to it, if it's going to sizzle and make an impact with its metallic surfaces and general braininess.

Far better was Falla's Three Dances from ``The Three-Cornered Hat'': Spanish dances, bejeweled like Ravel, allowing Foster to show off his skills as a colorist and bring the night to a dazzling end.