Music Review: ESA-PEKKA SALONEN AND JULIA BULLOCK (San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall)

Post image for Music Review: ESA-PEKKA SALONEN AND JULIA BULLOCK (San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall)

by Harvey Perr on February 26, 2020

in Music,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


The opening notes of Steven Stucky’s transcription of Henry Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, memorably mournful, set the elegiac tone for last weekend’s San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Hall. In ten short minutes, a quietly solemn mood was eloquently created, under the sympathetic conducting of Essa-Pekka Salonen, whose style, simultaneously controlled and fluid, was perfectly suited to Stucky’s darkly atmospheric score.

The simplicity of the piece, free of a string section, had a stateliness that evoked dreams rather than tears. And it melded perfectly into Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, Op. 18, written for a string orchestra and high solo voice, a deeply moving song cycle with texts by French poète maudit Arthur Rimbaud. What made this the most stirring performance of the evening was the dusky soprano of Julia Bullock. Though her voice conveyed a multitude of emotions, the overwhelming mood was one of stillness. The effect was nothing short of beautiful.

The concert might have ended there. And perhaps, for the sake of artistic purity, it should have. But, intermission over, the thematic course of the concert continued, Rimbaud metamorphosing into Mallarmé, in an increasingly French-tinged concert, with Maurice Ravel’s chamber piece, Three Poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, and the return of Ms. Bullock and Salonen’s relinquishing the baton in favor of the supple grace of his hands. It was not without its rewards for the musical connoisseur, but was, on the whole, fairly lugubrious. The problem was the tortured symbolism of Mallarmé’s poems; if one had paid less attention to the supertitles and concentrated instead on Bullock, one might have felt more profoundly the sense of loss and despair the revolutionary 19th-century poet was getting at. Ravel’s score was almost too faithful to the text; the efforts of Bullock and Music Director Designate of SF Symphony Salonen were in the spirit of the piece, but it, nevertheless, proved to be not quite enough.

After Ravel, more Ravel. His music for the ballet Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) brought some lightness into the concert and a grand flourish at its climax, and Salonen, as usual, brought wit and refinement to its various sections, but there was too little variety in the music itself, so that it was hard to tell Sleeping Beauty from Tom Thumb without the choreography. Still, even after a less than sparkling second half, the memory of Stucky and Britten continued to haunt us. Elegy need not be enervating.

photos by Brandon Patoc

Esa-Pekka Salonen & Julia Bullock
San Francisco Symphony
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness Avenue
ends on February 22, 2020
for tickets, call 415-864-6000
or visit SFS

Leave a Comment