Friday, March 17, 2017

Valčuha and Shaham Make for a Dynamic Duo this Week at Davies

This week’s San Francisco Symphony (SFS) subscription concerts at Davies Symphony Hall bring together two welcome visitors, both of whom have consistently offered imaginative and attentive repertoire selections. The conductor was Slovak Juraj Valčuha, making his fourth visit to the SFS podium; and his concerto soloist was violinist Gil Shaham. The concerto selection reflected his current 1930s Violin Concertos recording project on his Canary label. This was Samuel Barber’s Opus 14 concerto, which happens to be the first composition on the first of the two CDs in the first release in Shaham’s series. (This raises a quibble with the program book: On the page of recommended recordings and readings, why list Shaham’s earlier Deutsche Grammophon album when he clearly had much greater, not to mention informed, creative control over the more recent one?)

For the sake of historical accuracy, Barber completed his only violin concerto in July of 1940; but he began it about twelve months earlier. However, the liner notes for the Canary album suggest that Shaham was interested in the diversity of creativity that took place in the period between the stock market crash of 1929 and the emergence of the Second World War. This was an “age of anxiety,” even if W. H. Auden coined that phrase for conditions following the conclusion of that same war.

Thus, Shaham may have given Barber’s concerto the “pole position” in his recording project because, in many respects, it was emblematic of those anxious times. The music is consistently (and unabashedly) lyrical; but it is a lyricism of melancholy. That melancholy emerges through the sharper edges of many of the virtuoso solo passages, but it also arises through the sharp contrasts in many of Barber’s instrumentation decisions and his characteristically personal approach to dissonance.

Because the concerto is as much about the ensemble as it is about the soloist, the success of last night’s performance owed much to the chemistry between Shaham and Valčuha. This was particularly apparent in Shaham’s face (since he was the one facing the audience), which revealed that he was just as absorbed in Valčuha’s expressive interpretation of the orchestral passages as he was engaged in his own solo work. Shaham did not conceal that he was having a very good time; but his pleasure took in the entire experience of the concerto, rather than just his contribution to it. The overall result was a convincing case for a prominent position for this concerto in the twentieth-century canon.

The audience clearly accepted that case with enthusiastic gusto. Shaham is one of those frequent visitors whom they refuse to let leave until he as offered an encore. That encore was the Gavotte en Rondeau movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1006 solo violin partita in E major. This was clearly one of Shaham’s favorite movements from the full set of Bach’s solo violin works. He had played the partita in its entirety when he was a Great Performers Series soloist at Davies in February of 2013, and it is clear that he never tires of BWV 1006 and the Gavotte movement in particular. He always comes up with little twists to make each return of the rondo theme feel like a fresh experience, and last night was no exception.

For the second half of the program, Valčuha could not have selected a more familiar offering, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major, last performed by SFS under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas in January of 2014. However, this was definitely a performance to tweak the imaginations of those who thought they knew all there was to know about this symphony. Without short-changing any of the expressive rhetoric in this music, Valčuha presented it as an elegantly intricate piece of clockwork, pointing out subtle little gears and linkages that could easily have escaped even the most attentive of previous listening experiences. The result was a stimulating reminder that even our most favored listening selections can always benefit from new points of view that provide us with new memories to cherish, rather than compromising the old ones.

Valčuha also made a bold move in beginning his program with Franz Schreker’s 1916 chamber symphony. To the extent that Schreker is known, it would be for his operas; and orchestral selections from those operas have been pretty much the only sources for his past presence in Davies. Indeed, last night’s performance of the chamber symphony was the first one ever given by SFS. Schreker is also known for his connections to two better-known composers from the early twentieth century, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Zemlinsky’s brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg. As a conductor, Schreker was responsible for the premiere of Schoenberg’s mammoth Gurre-Lieder.

Schreker seems to have approached his chamber symphony as an opportunity to work with more limited resources. However, his instrumentation reflected that he was as interested in rich sonorities on this smaller scale as he was in his opera scores. The work requires 23 performers. These include one-to-a-part players on four violins, two violas, three cellos, and two basses, separate keyboard players for celeste, harmonium, and piano, and a single player for percussion and timpani (divided between two performers last night). The remaining parts are for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and harp.

The music itself is rich in harmonic ambiguity; but the thematic material is consistently well-defined. It does not take much for the listener to become aware of the episodic nature of the movement through the clarity of its transitional passages. Nevertheless, the instrumentation is a challenging one; and it seemed as if Valčuha was still coming to terms with the best way to balance instruments whose respective dynamic ranges varied so extensively. (Keisuke Nakagoshi’s harmonium contributions were more visible than audible, even though he was using an electric keyboard.)

It is worth speculating whether Schreker may have been influenced by Schoenberg’s Opus 9 chamber symphony, which was first performed in Vienna on February 8, 1907. Schoenberg seems to have established a better command of balance with his fifteen-instrument assembly of a string quartet and a wind ensemble. On the other hand Schoenberg’s thematic language is ambiguous almost to a point of obscurity. Schreker’s compositional structure may have provided a better way to deal with such an assemblage of resources; and, if nothing else, his efforts tend to be more accessible to sympathetic listeners. Still, it would probably be interesting to put the two pieces on the same program to see how they would reflect off of each other.

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