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SF Symphony spellbinds Zellerbach Hall with haunting ‘Symphonie Fantastique’

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OCTOBER 28, 2022

Lurching shadows and supernatural specters traipsed aurally through Zellerbach Hall the night of Oct. 21. In “Symphonie Fantastique,” the first program of a Halloween-themed trilogy, the San Francisco Symphony’s foray into the spooky and surreal astounded with its striking repertoire and stylistic charisma. 

Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen capitalized on surprise. Wasting no breath, the music director launched into the belligerent opening of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” almost immediately upon ascending to the maestro’s perch. Bursting beyond the upper strings’ needling tumult, the brasses’ bombastic proclamations bled thunderously into whirling passages flushed with thrashing, intermingling melodies. The piece, replete with vicious chromatics and flurrying rhythms, draws imagery from St. John’s Eve — a Slavic holiday celebrated annually on the summer solstice. From this tradition, Mussorgsky’s composition paints a vivid witches’ sabbath: overlaying blaring horns over the furious maelstroms of the symphony’s upper register, a sense of occult foreboding descended upon the theater. 

Yet, as all dusks evolve into daylight, the ferocity of “Night on Bald Mountain” was but an ephemeral wonder. The piece rocketed into its pensive second half with the sudden advent of a chiming church bell, whose distant tolling invited the violins’ meandering melody to seize the stage. With plangent euphony, a pair of woodwind solos dissolved the night into dawn, welcoming the sunlight with the composition’s airy, reverberating final note.

The symphony, still vibrating with the energy of Mussorgsky’s nocturnal vigor, then turned to the realm of eternal sleep with Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz (Dance of Death).” With acclaimed French pianist Bertrand Chamayou seated at the Steinway, the piece plunged into its clamorous exposition with lead-footed instrumentation, draining into cascading scales and theatrical orchestrics. Between skittering glissandos and the winds’ marching insistence, Chamayou furnished Liszt’s cadenzas with fulgent clarity, tempering the piano’s ruminations with darkness and its tenderness with melancholy. In the composition’s most forceful moments, Chamayou’s tempestuous pedaling almost hurled the pianist skyward with the physicality of his musical momentum. 

With every shade of the piece’s Dies irae melody rendered with reeling articulation, “Totentanz” climbed to its apoplectic zenith in its sixth variation. Swelling woodwind harmonies gyrated against the sting of the strings’ col legno; Chamayou’s incandescent rendition blazed with precision. The composition’s electric dramatism soon drew to a blaring close, and Chamayou left both the stage and the audience hovering in the echoes of Liszt’s macabre-plated daring. 

Yet, in his final gift to the captivated audience, Chamayou returned, wreathed in applause, to offer a moving encore. Entrenched in the searching notes of Liszt’s “Sonetto 123 del Petrarca,” the pianist’s luminous melody peeked in front of the piece’s ambling lower register, shifting from velvet pianissimos to passionate contemplations with each cresting dynamic. 

Even so, the program had yet to reach its summit. As the symphony shifted to the night’s titular performance of Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14,” the audience’s bated breaths ruptured with the dreamlike entry of its first movement. Salonen, with serrating crescendos and arpeggio rivulets ready to deploy at his sweeping cues, led the music through the mercurial “Reveries, Passions” into the idyllic second movement, “The Ball” — an intricate, satin-like dance. Each of the piece’s partitions signified a moment in the ornate narrative that Berlioz concocted for himself. Intoxicated by love, he imagined a poison-induced vision of his own execution and the underworldly bacchanal that follows it. 

As the reflective, painterly landscape of the third movement colored a vibrant “Scene in the Fields,” the striding fourth movement, “March to the Scaffold,” floated a sequence of galloping horns and thrumming percussion into the hall. Its fatal explosion of sound, ominous and dressed in doom, scorched into “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” with staggering might, heralding the final movement’s psychedelic unravelings. 

The blast of Berlioz’s departing note rang vociferously, delivering a shiver-marked trail of harmony to Zellerbach’s spine. As the crowd broke from a near-monolithic standing ovation and dispersed into the chilly October night, one couldn’t help but feel the symphony’s looming echoes clinging weblike to the air, scattering dark mysticism across the campus. 

Contact Esther Huang at 


OCTOBER 28, 2022