SAN FRANCISCO -- Anger. Disease. Hope. No hope. Terror. Madness. Love. Grief. Despair. Death. Memory. Composer John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, composed in 1988 as an AIDS elegy, reflects on all of the above. That's an ambitious exercise. And it is a remarkable work, a 40-minute howl from the composer's soul that, criminally, is not often performed.
Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have decided to correct the state of affairs by taking the work on their North American tour, which opened Tuesday at Davies Symphony Hall. The performance was immensely powerful, visceral, whipping between tender agonies and hammer blows. After a quarter century, Corigliano's opus can stand as a universal commentary on life and fate -- and Dudamel, cagily, packaged it with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, with which the Russian expressed his own feelings of "complete resignation before Fate," as he once explained.
(A second program, featuring Brahms's Symphony No. 2 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist Yuja Wang, was scheduled for Wednesday.)
At Tuesday's program, part of the Great Performers Series presented by the San Francisco Symphony (which is off on its own tour), Corigliano's overlooked opus was the news. With its wide canvas and tightly woven narrative -- a musical analogue to the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt that inspired the composer -- it is a showcase for orchestra. In his fifth season as music director, Dudamel, 33, grabbed the opportunity; he and his 108 musicians gave a bravura performance.
It announced itself with swarming string effects, wildly buzzing. Where could it possibly go from here? To chattering trumpets, whooping horns, screaming high winds: howls and slashes, a pummeling drumbeat, like the march of time -- and then a gentle tango for piano, drifting in from offstage (where it was wistfully played by Joanne Pearce Martin.)
This transcription of "Tango" by Isaac Albeniz (a favorite piece of a pianist and friend of Corigliano's, who died of AIDS) fades in and out of the long opening movement, titled "Of Rage and Remembrance." Later, the composer engineers a single dissonant chord that takes over the orchestra, incessantly repeating and gradually slowing; Tuesday, it sounded like a ravaging monster, or a metaphor for disease.
Signaling with his left hand, held aloft like a tuning fork, Dudamel guided his players -- they included seven percussionists and nine double bassists -- through Corigliano's maze of cross-cutting rhythms, textures, moods. "Tarantella," the second movement, juxtaposes a jaunty Italian dance (of steadily increasing speed) with hard-spliced hallucinatory episodes -- all of this recalling another late friend's descent into AIDS dementia. It was whirlingly rendered; virtuoso playing.
Yet another friend, a cellist named Giulio, is eulogized in "Chaconne," the third movement. This featured principal cellist Robert deMaine and assistant principal cellist Ben Hong; their exquisite and agonizing rhapsody ("Giulio's Song") stood in contrast with the almost unbelievable collective howl that closed the movement. The finale, which quietly revisits earlier themes, hovered like sad, cherished memories -- and then Corigliano emerged to take his bows alongside conductor and orchestra.
Each time Dudamel brings his band to San Francisco there's a sense of their growing mutual commitment. There's a lot of close listening going on in the orchestra's ranks. And Dudamel, who sometimes gets pegged as an energy freak, is much more than that. He is a fine shaper of line and detail, dialing in tempos and dynamics; his performances are clear and meaty, too.
After intermission, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 -- announced by the clarinet's doleful "Fate" theme -- set off at a patient pace and stealthily began to thrust forward. The strings were plush; violas and cellos generated exceptional warmth. Trombones and tuba were buttery and perfectly blended.
Several moments stand out: As the Andante cantabile faded away, there was Dudamel (left hand aloft, once again) seeming to extract the last remaining vapors of sound from his players. During the Valse, he tossed melodies through the orchestra, like ribbons. The storm-of-the-heart Finale, with its prog rock tumult, peaked a moment or two too soon.
But this was one satisfying performance.
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Yuja Wang, piano
Works by Bjarnason, Rachmaninoff, Brahms
When: 8 p.m. March 12
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: Limited availability; call box office about last-minute releases, $76-$180; 415-864-6000
More information: www.sfsymphony.org