Two startlingly gifted and brilliant young musicians are in performance at Davies Symphony Hall this week, as the San Francisco Symphony hosts a conductor and soloist, both in their mid-twenties – neither of whom is settling for an easy ride. In an all-Russian program of masterworks, British conductor Alexander Prior leads the Symphony in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – with American violinist William Hagen as guest artist – and a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No 2.
Alexander Prior, at the age of just 25, is the newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has worked as a guest conductor since 2014. He is also an accomplished composer, having written his first work at the age of 8. London-born and Russian trained, Prior studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory, graduating with master’s degrees in Symphonic and Operatic Conducting and Composition – and at 17 was the youngest student since Sergei Prokofiev to graduate with distinction as a conductor from the Conservatory. At the age of 12, he was conducting his own music at a St Petersburg opera house, and the following year, his ballet Mowgli – commissioned by the Moscow State Ballet – won international acclaim. Alexander Prior has to date written more than 40 works – symphonies, concertos, two ballets, and two operas – with his work being performed at venues such as the Wigmore Hall, the Barbican and the Royal Danish Ballet.
As a conductor, Prior was appointed to the staff of the Seattle Symphony at the age of 17, where – during the 2009-10 season – he served as Assistant Conductor. His mentors include luminaries of the caliber of Thomas Dausgaard and Robert Spano, Michael Tilson Thomas at the New World Symphony, Andrew Manze, and Nicholas McGegan and Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos – both at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Alexander Prior has appeared as guest conductor at Opera Leipzig, the Bavarian State Opera, Royal Danish Opera, the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the German Chamber Orchestra Bremen, Copenhagen Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, WDR Funkhaus Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Victoria Symphony and the New World Symphony.
American violinist William Hagen considers the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto to be “one of the greatest pieces of music ever written”. It’s also considered one of the most technically challenging in the repertoire, presenting the soloist with the longest period of continuous playing of all violin concertos.
Following Hagen’s performance of this work at the 2015 Queen Elisabeth Concours, violinist.com wrote: “Impeccable timing, an intellectual command of line and score and just the right amount of power to push his cadenzas to the fore brought the audience to its feet: Hagen wore his heart on his sleeve and took many of us along to rejoice with him.” And Belgium’s Le Soir described his performance as “…. a cultured reading of a demanding work ….. that takes its own value beyond its technical difficulties.”
Hagen has performed in chamber concerts with Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall in London, and with Gidon Kremer, Steven Isserlis, and Christian Tetzlaff at the “Chamber Music Connects the World” festival in Kronberg, Germany. Conductors with whom William Hagen has appeared include Marin Alsop, Christian Arming, Placido Domingo, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Michel Tabachnik and Hugh Wolff, and he has performed with the symphony orchestras of Albany, Buffalo, Fort Worth, Jacksonville, St. Louis, Oregon and Utah, in the US, and abroad with the Brussels Philharmonic, the National Orchestra of Belgium, the ORF Radio-Sinfonieorchester in Vienna, the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, and in Japan with the Yokohama Sinfonietta and the Sendai Philharmonic. He is currently studying under Christian Tetzlaff at the Kronberg Academy in Germany, is an alumnus of the Perlman Music Program at the Verbier Academy in Switzerland, and has also appeared at the Aspen Music Festival.
The inclusion of a work by Tchaikovsky and one by Rachmaninoff in this program is interesting – for Tchaikovsky was a great supporter of the young Rachmaninoff, who in turn admired Tchaikovsky enormously. Certainly, the influence on Rachmaninoff of the older composer has not been lost on us.
Sketched and completely orchestrated in less than a month, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was initially dedicated to Leopold Auer – who was highly critical of the work – so Tchaikovsky dedicated it to Adolf Brodsky instead, and he performed at the premiere in Vienna on December 4, 1881. The concerto was, however, poorly received, with one prominent critic – according to Anthony Holden in his biography of Tchaikovsky – having “reviled the very hallmarks which have since made the piece so popular: its athletic energy, its robust romanticism and its red-bloodedly Slavonic finale”. We now know, of course, that this is one of the most popular violin concertos in the repertoire.
It’s somewhat surprising that Rachmaninoff’s sumptuous and richly melodic Second Symphony ever saw the light of day, following the devastating reception of his First Symphony in 1897. Nevertheless, following a course in hypno-therapy, Rachmaninoff completed the score which became his most popular work – his Second Piano Concerto – in 1901. So successful was he as a concert pianist, that he moved to Dresden with his wife and baby daughter to remove himself from the public eye, and it was there that his Symphony No 2 was composed during the years 1906 and 1907. He led the first performance of the work on February 8, 1908, in St Petersburg, and by the end of that year, he had been awarded the Glinka prize for it. Sadly, Rachmaninoff’s full worth as a composer only started to be recognized after his death in Beverley Hills in 1943.
Alexander Prior leads the San Francisco Symphony in performances of works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, with soloist William Hagen, at Davies Symphony Hall on July 13th and 14th at 7.30 pm. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
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