Sunday, February 24, 2008

We'll Always Have Mozart

I seem to have this habit of reviewing the news before setting out to write about more general topics, such as music. This is not always the best of tactics. It's bad enough when we are besieged by political follies, but we also have to contend with a particularly virulent flu strain that seems to have gotten overlooked in this year's vaccine and weather patterns that just keep getting worse. Those last two factors probably contributed to my arriving at Davies Symphony Hall later than usual last night and finding it depressingly empty with less than fifteen minutes before the beginning of the concert. Fortunately, the problem seems to have been primarily due to our latest round of "extreme weather;" and most of the empty seats were filled after the first item on the program. I was glad to see this, since one of my contacts in the Box Office had informed me that this was a sold-out event.

This was Herbert Blomstedt's second appearance with the San Francisco Symphony, complementing last week's all-Tchaikovsky program with an all-Mozart evening. I have already observed that his programs seem to have more popular appeal than they did when he was music director, and his approach to Mozart was no exception. Indeed, when one places the San Francisco Symphony alongside the Midsummer Mozart Orchestra, conducted by George Cleve, and Donald Runnicles' performances of Mozart with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, San Francisco emerges as a city of well-developed Mozart listeners. Such listeners are always interested in hearing new approaches to pieces previously heard, so it was interesting that the first half of the concert consisted of two works from last summer's Midsummer Mozart programs, the K. 251 D major divertimento and the K. 482 E-flat major piano concerto. Furthermore, the piano concerto had been performed by the Symphony last season by Emanuel Ax under Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä; so there were a wealth of opportunities to drink old wine from new bottles (or new wine from old bottles, if you prefer).

The piano soloist was Jonathan Biss, who was last in San Francisco about a year ago for a solo recital. In some ways that recital reminded me of a recital that Ax had given in the early stages of his own career, particularly since Biss had included Webern on his program as Ax had done with Schoenberg. In both cases this struck me as somewhat of a defiant claim to personal identity in a field of so many pianists clamoring for attention, but there was also a sense in which the entire program was challenging the way in which we listened. This was most evident in his performance of Mozart, which, I argued at the time, only began to make sense after we heard his approach to Schumann in the second half of the program. This is all very well and good for a solo recital, but it left me entering Davies last night wondering how Biss would share the spotlight. Would he, as they say, "play well with others?"

Well, as I discovered last week, Blomstedt is very generous to his soloists, even when they go in for the sort of heavy-handed exhibitionism that Nikolai Lugansky brought to his Tchaikovsky performance. Biss may have provocative ideas, but he is not an exhibitionist in presenting them. Indeed, last night's performance was very much a meeting of minds over how to approach Mozart. Schumann was not to be found on the program, and his influence was not to be found in Biss' performance. In the context of other K. 482 performances, this one was closer to the way in which George Cleve and soloist Janina Fialkowska escorted the listener through the delights of all the nuances in Mozart's score, rather than the "show-off kid" approach that Ax could take by letting his hair down, having firmly established his reputation. Blomstedt's conducting, of course, is at its best when he is teasing out those nuances; but what mattered was that he and Biss were "on the same page" in the approach they took together to how we would hear them. Even the cadenzas that Biss had prepared were consistent with this nuanced approach, making the opportunity to hear yet another interpretation of this concerto a real delight.

For the rest of the evening Blomstedt was "in charge" of all the nuances, so to speak. This was particularly evident in the second half of the program, which consisted entirely of the K. 504 D major symphony ("Prague"). This is another instance of "Mannheim dynamics," where the gradual crescendo can count for more than the piano-forte contrast. What makes Blomstedt particularly effective is the way in which he makes us aware of these effects without exaggerating them. There is often an effort to put the subtlety under a magnifying glass, lest it escape the attention of the audience; but Blomstedt knows how to let these moments speak for themselves. The result is a polished elegance with no hint of displaced exaggeration. At the same time there is absolutely no sense of tedium, even though all repeats are taken with total fidelity to the printed score. The fact is that, when these moments return to us, we welcome the opportunity to hear them again. They are revisiting us, and they are welcome friends.

The program opened with the K. 251 divertimento, which probably was the closest we got to the "show-off kid" side of Mozart. This is almost (but not quite) an oboe concerto; and, if William Bennett was a bit more refined than Laura Griffiths had been last summer, particularly in the "brassy" effect of repeated notes in the rondo movement, he brought his own "voice" to bear on his solos, which were as nuanced as those that Biss would later perform. Actually, there is a fair amount of solo work in this divertimento, not always in the most expected of places. Mozart always had a great love of inner voices. In this case this meant that the first-chair second violin had a solo voice to support "leads" from both Bennett's oboe and Alexander Barantschik's first violin. Paul Brancato was the second violin soloist, and his role was one of both support and individuality. Nevertheless, one should not focus too heavily on those solo voices. The entire program was played by a reduced orchestra, meaning that every voice in the ensemble mattered. Blomstedt conducted that way, and everyone on stage knew exactly how to respond appropriately.

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