Fifty-seven is not an age at which a hale composer should be thinking of a self-generated career retrospective.
Yet the South African-born, Irish-resident Kevin Volans retraces his musical biography in his coruscating Piano Concerto No 2, a San Francisco Symphony commission that both enlisted the formidable Marc-André Hamelin as soloist and revealed much about a composer whose reputation was built here almost exclusively on his chamber music collaborations with the Kronos Quartet two decades ago.
In the course of a mere 25 minutes, the one-movement work recalls Volans’s youthful fascination with the Romantic piano concerto, his flirtation with postminimalism, his affection for Morton Feldman’s extended structures and his dedication to the native musical material of his homeland.
The latter influence strikes the ear most palpably as a fearsome percussion battery competes for attention with an unremitting piano contribution that demands an exponent of almost superhuman gifts.
In his overdue debut with the orchestra, Hamelin hammered out chordal passages, outlined obsessive rhythmic modules and invested recurring ostinatos with uncommon elegance.
Yet Volans leavens his textures with lyrical episodes as paired winds and pulsing cellos comment on a solo line steeped in a delicate cantilena, an evocation of a world beyond strife.
The concerto’s title, we are told, references the Irish immigrants’ voyage to America during the Great Hunger. Less sophisticated ears will more readily discern a journey through the heart of Africa, a sinister, exotic beauty awaiting the traveller on every page.
Music director Michael Tilson Thomas invested the concerto with much gusto, though the wonted section balances, rhythmic consistency and constantly shifting percussion dynamics were still a work in progress.
On more familiar ground, the conductor bid farewell to the Shostakovich centenary with a magisterial reading of the Symphony No 5 that alternately blazed and brooded.
No feeling of ambiguity about the final Allegro: despair seeped into the confident surface like a recurring nightmare. Tilson Thomas came to Shostakovich at an advanced stage in his career, a fact that one would never have guessed from this heroic performance.
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