Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha – now a regular and popular guest with the San Francisco Symphony – makes his fourth appearance with the orchestra this week, leading a program featuring the Brahms Violin Concerto – with guest artist Ray Chen – Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, and Andrew Norman’s Unstuck.
Chief Conductor of the Orchestra and Choir of Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, and previously Chief Conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai in Turin, Maestro Valčuha has appeared with many of the major orchestras in Europe and the United States since his 2005 debut with the Orchestre Nationale de France in Paris. The Guardian’s music critic described Valčuha’s interpretation of Resphigi’s Feste Romane, with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, as “one of the most thrilling things I’ve heard for some time”.
From San Francisco, Juraj Valčuha goes to Rome to conduct the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and the Orchestra del Teatro San Carlo, before appearing with the Konzerthausorchester in Berlin. Equally successful in the world of opera, Maestro Valčuha will also return to Naples to conduct performances of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West, Tosca, and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Violin virtuoso Ray Chen is very much a musician of the 21st century, with his online presence reaching millions of classical music-lovers around the world. Winner of an ECHO Klassik Award for his first recording, Virtuoso, he was named as “one to watch” by both The Strad and Gramophone magazines, and has appeared in the Forbes list of the 30 most influential Asians under 30. He has performed at major events such as the celebration of Bastille Day in France, the Nobel Prize Concert in Stockholm and at the BBC Proms.
Chen has also appeared with some of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors in Europe and the United States, was resident at the Dortmund Konzerthaus from 2012 to 2015, and this season has featured in an ‘Artist Focus’ with the Berlin Radio Symphony. According to the Washington Post, “Ray Chen can do pretty much anything he wants on the violin”, and in a review of one of his performances, The Times wrote: “Colors dance, moods swing, and Chen’s artistry blazes”.
Ray Chen is also firmly committed to music education. An inspiration to young music students with his self-produced videos – in which he also introduces an element of comedy – he is credited with “attracting an entirely new demographic to the concert hall”, according to his website.
Brahms’ Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra, Op 77, is a lyrical and melodic work, with a certain majesty, which also draws in the rhythms of Hungarian folk music. Completed in 1878, it was initially considered to be too difficult for most violinists, however it was mastered by the composer’s friend, Joseph Joachim – to whom the work was dedicated – and regarded as having highlighted his virtuosity. Joachim was the soloist at the concerto’s premiere in Leipzig on January 1st, 1879, a performance conducted by Brahms himself.
Ray Chen’s performance of the concerto has an interesting link with Joachim, for he plays the 1715 ‘Joachim’ Stradivarius violin, once owned by the Hungarian virtuoso himself, and now on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation.
This week’s concert opens with a work entitled Unstuck by Andrew Norman, a Los Angeles-based composer of orchestral, chamber and vocal music, combining a mix of both the avant-garde and classical. Unstuck was commissioned by the Orpheum Stiftung and premiered in Zurich in 2008 by the Tonhalle Orchester, led by Michael Sanderling. Norman’s work has been hailed by the New York Times for its “daring juxtapositions and dazzling colors”, by the Boston Globe for its “staggering imagination” and by the L A Times for its “audacious” spirit and “Chaplinesque” wit.
The final work in this concert is the Symphony No 3 by Sergei Prokofiev, which is sometimes referred to as The Fiery Angel – the title of an opera written by Prokofiev for the 1927-1928 season of Städtische Oper in Berlin. Because Prokofiev missed the deadline for its completion, the opera was never performed by the company, and the composer was unable to place it with any other. However, having heard a concert performance of the second act of the opera in Paris, led by Koussevitsky, and believing that it contained some of his finest music, Prokofiev reworked the opera as a symphony in 1928, and it was premiered in Paris on May 17, 1929, in a performance led by Pierre Monteux. Although it wasn’t accepted as part of the standard repertory until near the end of the 20th century, the Symphony No 3 is now considered one of Prokofiev’s strongest works.
Juraj Valčuha leads the San Francisco Symphony – with guest artist Ray Chen – in works by Brahms, Prokofiev and Andrew Norman, at Davies Symphony Hall, from May 3rd to 5th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
Information sourced from:
San Francisco Symphony program notes
and artists’ websites: