Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Symphony performs at Weill Hall Thursday night—the magnificent Mozart “Sinfonia” is on the program

San Francisco Symphony principal violist, Jonathan Vinocour, will solo, along with Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, in Mozart’s magnificent “Sinfonia concertante” on Thursday evening at Weill Hall. Vinocour joined SFS as Principal Violist in 2009, having previously served as principal violist of the Saint Louis Symphony and guest principal of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. He plays a 1784 Lorenzo Storioni viola, on loan from SFS. Vinocour and Barantschik have never together performed this virtuosic double Mozart concerto for viola and violin. SFS’s final concert at Weill Hall will also include Samuel Adams “Radial Play” and Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” Photo: Eyegotcha

It’s old news by now but, after two seasons of glorious performances at Green Music Center (GMC), San Francisco Symphony (SFS) is not returning to Weill Hall.  Our loss.  The reason, straight from SFS—despite the best efforts to build an audience for the series, attendance was very inconsistent and did not build to a level that could sustain further appearances at Weill Hall.  I can’t understand how we in the North Bay let this slip through our hands as every SFS performance in Weill Hall was magical, not to mention incredibly convenient.  SFS’ final scheduled concert at Weill Hall is this Thursday, “MTT Conducts Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra,” a wonderful mix of challenging classical and contemporary music featuring awe-inspiring solos and the famed MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) at the helm.

SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and Principal Viola Jonathan Vinocour will solo in Mozart’s “Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola.”  Then, SFS will perform Bartók’s brilliant five movement “Concerto for Orchestra” in which each section of instruments solos. Rounding out the program will be Samuel Adams’ six minute “Radial Play,” which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and premiered by the National Youth Orchestra in July 2014.  Adams, who lives in Oakland, is the son of composer John Adams and photographer Deborah O’Grady.   His modern “Drift and Providence” was performed at Weill Hall in 2012 and his career has been championed enthusiastically by MTT.

ARThound is particularly excited about the “Sinfonia concertante,” which Mozart composed in 1779, in Salzburg. Violists, who have been somewhat shorted in showcase repertory, have long sung the praises of this piece as the closest Mozart came to writing a viola concerto. The 30 minute piece is scored in three movements with very prominent viola and violin solos and is one of Mozart’s more recognizable works, showing up in several movies and even in William Styron’s famous novel Sophie’s Choice (when adult Sophie, who is plagued by PTSD, hears the “Sinfonia concertante” on the radio, she is transported back to her childhood in Krakow).

Principal violist Jonathan Vinocour, who has been with SFS for six years now, has never before played the Sinfonia with SFS.  He’s been practicing at home for hours on end for the past 10 days and the Weill Hall audience will be the second audience to hear him play it, after the Davies Hall performance on Wednesday evening. “All three movements of the piece are wonderful — it’s Mozart, after all — but it’s the second movement, the Andante, that people usually remember most,” said Vinocour.  “Mozart sets up an intricate conversation between the viola and the violin, almost like a couple talking. It’s very emotional, but also a quintessential piece of musical one-up-manship that continues into the third movement.”

Vinocour and Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik were soloists together in June 2013, when they played Benjamin Britten’s “Double Concerto for Violin and Viola” and they have also performed many chamber concerts together.  “Sasha [Barantschik] and I have such a familiarity with each other’s style, we enjoy the parts of the piece that are more spontaneous. We don’t plot out every detail, because the Sinfonia should come out sounding elegant and graceful, but also free-feeling and very natural.”   

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with “David,” the famous1742 Guarnerius del Gesú that was Jascha Heifetz’ favorite fiddle on stage and in the recording studio. Barantschik admires the way sound projects from the violin so that even while he is playing softly, the instrument can be heard throughout the concert hall. The violin rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, EXCEPT when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center. Photo: Geneva Anderson

For more insight, ARThound turned to San Francisco Symphony violist Wayne Roden of Cotati, who auditioned for the SFS with this Mozart piece in 1973, 42 years ago.

“Back when I auditioned, the solo piece that was asked for was Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, which Jonathan and Sasha will be playing. In years since then, the repertoire for solo pieces has often included a choice of either the Bartók or Walton Concerto, and sometimes Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher.  These 20th century pieces are very virtuosic, but the Mozart is required because it really shows you a tremendous amount about how someone plays. Musicians sweat blood over playing Mozart. I’ve sat on many audition committees, and have heard a lot of violists who played the hell out of the Bartók or the Walton–but within two lines of the Mozart, you can tell whether they’re good enough. A musician is really exposed in Mozart, more than in any music other than Bach, because of the nakedness of the musical expression.”

By the way, few will lament the loss of SFS at Weill Hall more than SFS’ three Sonoma County musicians (Roden, percussionist Tom Hemphill and bass player Chris Gilbert) who were saved the grueling commute to and from Davies Hall when SFS performed in Sonoma County.

Details: SFS will perform “MTT conducts “MTT Conducts Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra” at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall on Thursday, May 21, 2015, 8 PM.  Tickets: $20-$115, at or 415-864-6000.

Prepare yourself:

To read ARThound’s interview with SFS Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, on his January  2014 performance at Weill Hall, where he performed Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in D Minor,” click here.

A free podcast about Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is online at

May 20, 2015 Posted by | Classical Music, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment