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Music review: Symphony revisits Lutoslawski

06.27.08
Alisa Weilerstein
San Francisco Chronicle

Count on conductor David Robertson to bring Francisco Symphony's 2007-08 season on a climactic note.

Wednesday's concert in Davies Symphony Hall was a classic instance of the kind of artistic excitement that Robertson generally brings with him on his visits and that he has presumably been cultivating in his acclaimed gig as music director of the St. Louis Symphony. The program included a recent masterpiece, an older but comparatively unfamiliar work, and a piece from the standard repertoire - all of them rendered with focused pizzazz.

Coming at the end of a long concert season, this was just the sort of offering to bring in the summer in satisfying fashion.

For at least some listeners, the evening's most thrilling component came right at the outset, with a welcome revival of Witold Lutoslawski's crystalline "Mi-Parti." Lutoslawski's music was a frequent feature of musical life in these parts through the 1980s and early '90s, not least because the Polish master was often on hand to conduct it.

But since his death in 1994, performances of his brilliantly clear and vivacious music have been rarer, and audiences have been the poorer for it. To hear Robertson and the orchestra conjure up the composer's distinctive sound world on Wednesday was to long for more (fortunately, Krystian Zimerman is scheduled to play Lutoslawski's Piano Concerto with the Symphony next season.)

"Mi-Parti," which runs about 14 minutes, finds Lutoslawski working at peak concentration. The formal outline is a straightforward triptych, with two nebulous string episodes framing a huge climax dominated by the brass.

As in many of his later works, Lutoslawski marks important formal junctures with episodes of "controlled chance" writing, in which the instrumentalists play random figures within carefully circumscribed parameters. The result is a massive burst of sound that has all the freedom of chance music without abandoning a sense of overriding structure.

More telling, though, are the specifics of the scoring throughout - the careful overlay of individual violins to create a shimmery weave of string sound, or the elusive sparkle of the writing for flutes, harp and celesta (which often brings to mind the birdcalls and cosmic landscapes of Messiaen). Robertson coordinated all of it with wizardly transparency.

More traditional-minded patrons perhaps held out until after intermission, when cellist Alisa Weilerstein was soloist in a vibrant reading of Dvorák's Cello Concerto. She boasts a wonderfully large and expressive string tone, and she shaped the piece's lyrical melodies with heart-tugging eloquence.

To this taste, Weilerstein's performance was most arresting in the slow movement - especially in the gorgeous, unaccompanied passage marked "quasi cadenza" - and in the New World-tinged second theme of the opening movement. In the more vigorous writing of the first and third movements, her execution felt somewhat laborious, although there was no denying the rambunctious appeal of her playing.

Robertson elicited a forceful, vividly colored performance from the orchestra without ever impinging on Weilerstein's place in the spotlight - a dexterous balancing act - and also led an evocative rendition of Janácek's orchestral rhapsody "Taras Bulba." The music's pictorial elements, based on Gogol's novella, leapt off the stage in bright, dynamic colors.