Wednesday night marked the San Francisco Symphony debut for young pianist Jan Lisiecki playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major with guest conductor James Conlon. The 21-year-old rising star has made appearances worldwide with glowing reviews and tonight was no different. The concerto was sandwiched between Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major, which altogether showcased quite a variety of sonorities.

Jan Lisiecki © Mathias Bothor
Jan Lisiecki
© Mathias Bothor
Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem isn’t one that gets performed very often and as such was exciting to watch. As an interesting backstory, Britten wrote this piece as a commission from the British Council to compose a piece of music for the celebration of “the reigning dynasty of a foreign power”. The pacifist Britten couldn’t have guessed that the ‘foreign power’ was Japan, taking a break from their attacks in China to celebrate the 2600th anniversary of the Imperial dynasty. Sure enough, the Japanese then refused the work which contained movements which are titled with words from the Christian liturgy.

The Sinfonia da Requiem contains three connected movements, the first one being the Lacrymosa. This movement opened with the loud timpani thumps and the dark notes of the lower strings and brass instruments. It’s a slow trudging movement with tonalities that were uncomfortable but alluring enough to keep me interested. The second movement Dies irae, in contrast, was evocative of galloping horses with highly rhythmic spiccatos from the strings. This was described by Britten as a “Dance of Death” and there was a strange, frightening liveliness from the triplets and tremolos in the strings and bright trumpets and saxophones which certainly supports this notion. The third movement, titled Requiem aeternam, is a peaceful respite which opened with the flutes playing a melody which painted a tranquil setting. This then developed into flowing melodies from the strings which spanned a wide register as if to carry the listener into a celestial bliss as it reached the climax in the higher register before a serene closing with pizzacatos from the strings and a long sustained clarinet note.

Lisiecki's appearance reveals his youth but as soon as he started playing, there was a maturity which came as no surprise given the list of performances and collaborations he has had around the world. It seemed as though he quickly formed a rapport with the orchestra, which was greatly reduced in size for this part of the night, as well as with Conlon. From where I was sitting, there was an apparent sensitivity from Lisiecki which translated to his playing. Typically, it can be difficult to play Mozart, not so much because of the notes but more because of the way the music is to be expressed – with a balance of lightness and frivolity but also with nuances of depth and seriousness. Lisiecki had no problems in presenting this, his running passages were delightfully crisp and delicate. The second movement, at the centre of the concerto was particularly wonderful. There were episodes where it wasn’t the full orchestra playing but only a small group such as the winds alone or a string accompanied duet of flute and bassoon. These communicated an intimate conversation between the instruments which was just beautiful to eavesdrop. The third movement then closed with a fun and witty discourse whose fast passages again showcased Lisiecki’s mastery of the piano. My only quibble would be that even though I was only ten or so rows from the stage, at times I wished that I could turn up the volume of the Steinway as it seemed to be drowned by the orchestra, small though it was. 

The final offering of the night was Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major. This has often been described as a bright and optimistic symphony and it is certainly that, but it also is one that has distinctly Bohemian sounds and it’s almost impossible not to imagine yourself transported into a Czech pastureland or woods or even a dance floor with the waltz-like third movement. The last two movements were particularly enjoyable as even though it was getting late into the night, the orchestra clearly had not lost their drive, with sprightly flutes dancing in the opening of the third movement to accompany the strings. In the fourth, I especially enjoyed the way that Conlon drew out the lower strings in the theme and the joyous contrast brought out at the end as the entire orchestra painted a glorious sunny day echoing the atmosphere of the first movement.