Last night Vasily Petrenko returned to Davies Symphony Hall to serve as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in the first of this week’s four subscription concerts. Petrenko has been making regular visits to the SFS podium since his debut in 2010, and he has established a reputation for a perceptive approach to program design reinforced by an attentive sense of the expressiveness of the music he conducted. For this week’s visit he structured his program about what could be called a “Russian-Spanish axis.”
He began the program with an 1845 composition by Mikhail Glinka entitled “Capriccio brillante on the Jota aragonesa.” The two geographic strands then twisted apart. First there was a French take on the Spanish style in the form of Édouard Lalo’s Opus 21 “Symphonie espagnole,” composed in 1874. This is concertante music featuring a virtuoso solo violin part, played last night by Joshua Bell. The second half of the program then followed the Russian strand with a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 13 (first) symphony in D minor, composed in 1895. Both the Glinka and Rachmaninoff selections were being given their first SFS performances.
Unfortunately, Petrenko seemed less interested in the interplay of Russian and French influences than he was in reinforcing those influences with maximum-impact dynamic levels. Glinka began his capriccio with a flamboyantly ostentatious fanfare emphasizing a generous brass section boldly supported by the winds. The impact came close to blowing the listener (attentive or otherwise) out of his/her seat, a technique that Glinka had previously put to good using in reinforcing the grandeur of his grand operas. Petrenko pulled out all the stops for this introduction, leaving those who knew the music to wonder if the ringing in their ears might drown out the first statement of the theme by Assistant Concertmaster Mark Volkert.
Indeed, while Petrenko was dutiful enough to give that theme statement its due and to keep the initial rhythm going with some degree of subtlety in the percussion section, there was no doubt that his heart was in the decibels. Soft passages where there only to allow the players to catch their collective breaths in preparation for the next outburst. Unfortunately, none of those outbursts were more equal than others, meaning that Petrenko never endowed the composition as a whole with a dynamic contour that gave the piece some sense of a journey from beginning to end. Instead, it just burst like a display of fireworks and kept bursting to the point at which attentive listeners could not help but lose interest. One might almost think that Glinka deliberately calculated this effect for the broader “mass appeal;” so he could receive in the concert hall the same shouts of “Bravo!” he was used to getting in the opera house.
The Rachmaninoff symphony was another matter. He had graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 and was beginning to build up an impressive portfolio, including the full-length opera Aleko, which was actually a graduation assignment. Nevertheless, the symphony was still alien territory to him; and Opus 13 amounts to an informative document accounting for a young composer beginning to find his way. Nevertheless, it served Petrenko as another platform in which he could explore pushing the SFS players to their loudest dynamic levels. The overall impact was similar to that of the opening Glinka selection, but this time the assault on the eardrums was extended over the course of four movements, again with little sense of an overall structure defined through contours in the dynamic levels.
Similarly aggressive rhetoric established the opening measure of Lalo’s Opus 21; but, in this case, Petrenko was a bit more attentive to making sure that Bell would be heard without undue interference. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Bell was there primarily to wow the audience with his command of the virtuoso passages. While that command was indubitably impressive, he seemed to saw his way through the thematic material of the rest of the solo line, as if he just wanted to dispatch it and move on to the showier stuff. Thus, as had been the case with the Glinka selection, any efforts by the composer to evoke the subtleties of the Spanish style were left wallowing in the Slough of Despond.
Lalo’s reputation may not have risen to the heights of his successors in the next century, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. (It is, however, worth noting that both of them had their own explorations of that Spanish style; and there was no shortage of subtlety in their results.) However, even if Lalo was not a major figure, he deserved better than he got last night from both soloist and conductor. Things were no better for the “old school” Russians on the program.