Violinist Mark Volkert joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1972, when he was a junior at Stanford University. He is the orchestra's longest-standing member. He also is a composer, and that was the news Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall, where Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the world premiere of Volkert's "Pandora," a showcase for his colleagues, which erupts with surprises -- not unlike the proverbial "Pandora's box" of Greek mythology.
Addressing the audience before the opening downbeat, Tilson Thomas called the piece a "tour de force of writing for our orchestra." It's true. The program also included superb performances of Strauss and Beethoven, whose "Emperor" concerto featured winning pianist Yefim Bronfman. But most special was this chance to hear a bravura new work, penned by a member of the band.
Volkert's 20-minute opus for string orchestra bears all the marks of a string connoisseur, one who is a student of Bach, Bartok and Shostakovich. He knows his market -- appreciates his colleagues' talents, sets high challenges for them that are doable and exciting. As the piece tells its story -- -one hears an explosion of evil spirits as the lid is lifted from Pandora's jar -- it also feels loaded with acoustical knowledge, as if it were composed with this very concert hall in mind. It sounded great with its balanced tussling of sonorities and extreme variety of dynamics.
Volkert is a self-deprecating man, and funny. In a preconcert talk
In fact, this is a most serious work, rigorously structured in a single movement. It follows classical sonata form; Volkert suggested that listeners should "follow the motifs, like a Haydn symphony." Yet its conception is unique. Volkert builds his narrative around a series of signposts: cadenza-like solos for first violin, second violin, cello, viola and, yes, the big double bass. There is a constant alternation between these solo statements and ensemble passages -- a kind of modernist transformation of the Baroque concerto grosso format.
The work could use a shave; it goes on a few minutes too long. But "Pandora," the bulk of it, is suspenseful: tiptoeing pizzicato; harmonics summoning ghostly whorls across the orchestra; angular, slashing
Standout soloists included associate principal cellist Peter Wyrick's bracingly jagged, then lyric cadenza, and a pair of devilish solos by concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, reminiscent of the rough fiddling passages of the Scherzo to Mahler's Symphony No. 4. Toward the end of "Pandora," Barantschik also wind-milled through an extended cadenza that absolutely smoked. (He had a smoking night, generally.) And we can't forget principal double bassist Scott Pingel's splendid solo with its ascending (and juicy) double-stopped sequences, or the malevolent minuet composed by Volkert for the double basses.
Volkert, the orchestra's assistant concertmaster, took his bows from the mezzanine. Not one to shirk his duties, he performed among the violins for the remainder of the program: Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," which (like "Pandora") is a programmatic work, telling the tale of a mythic troublemaker, and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor."
This was a marvelous performance of the Strauss, spirited and polished, guided by Tilson Thomas with an easy sense of mischief and momentum. Principal Robert Ward nailed the famous horn passages.
As for the "Emperor," Bronfman gave it an imperial performance. He always surprises me -- a big bear of a man, playing with such nimble touch and fluidity. His windup to the dancing finale was beyond great.
San Francisco Symphony
Performing Mark Volkert's "Pandora" and works by Beethoven and Strauss
Yefim Bronfman, piano; Michael Tilson Thomas conductor
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$150; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org