Thursday, June 1, 2017

San Francisco Symphony Players Jam with Their Concertmaster

Last night the vast space of Davies Symphony Hall resonated delightfully with intimate gatherings of San Francisco Symphony musicians under the direction of Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. The concert was the first of (regrettably, only) two bringing the baroque traditions of Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach together with the burgeoning classicism of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (The second performance will take place this afternoon at 2 p.m.) In his capacity as Concertmaster, Barantschik assumes many duties of leadership; and, while he was clearly in charge last night, the prevailing atmosphere was one of a moderately-sized assembly of friends, who had come together to enjoy the pleasures of making music. The result was one of those delightful reminders that jamming was around long before the word became associated with jazz practices.

Familiarity was the order of the evening. The program was framed by two of the strongest warhorses from the baroque repertoire. The first half was occupied entirely by The Four Seasons, the first four violin concertos in the collection of twelve published by Vivaldi as his Opus 8, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (the contest between harmony and invention), while the evening concluded with Bach’s BWV 1047, the second (in the key of F major) of his six “Brandenburg” concertos. Between these two pieces, the ensemble played Mozart’s K. 251 divertimento in D major, which most likely served as occasional music for a social event in Salzburg.

The Vivaldi performance took place a little less that two weeks after it had been performed in Herbst Theatre as the second of the three concerts prepared for the 25th Anniversary Festival of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO). Barantschik assembled a string ensemble scaled to roughly the same size that NCCO had brought to Herbst; and, while his approach to leadership was decidedly different from that of NCCO Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the performance he led was no less expressive. Salerno-Sonnenberg may have been more physically overt in both posture and gesture; but Barantschik communicated just as effectively, even if his “primary channel” was the broad diversity of his approaches to phrasing and dynamics, while his use of body language was minimal.

Most important was that, once again, it was clear that Vivaldi’s concertos were about more than just the leading soloist. Structurally, the music oscillates between the ensemble-as-chorus and more intimate conversations among solo voices. Most evident was the amount of solo interplay between Barantschik and cellist Peter Wyrick, whose passages extended beyond mere continuo duties. Even violist Yun Jie Liu had a solo opportunity during the first concerto, although it involved playing a single note in a repeated rhythmic pattern! The result was that, even for those who may have been at the NCCO concert, this was a reading of Vivaldi with its own distinctive expression of the diverse scope of human moods covered by the four sonnets that Vivaldi wrote as the “program” for these concertos.

BWV 1047, on the other hand, involved a sharper delineation between soloists and ensemble. Those soloists consisted of Barantschik, Tim Day on flute, Eugene Izotov on oboe, and Mark Inouye on trumpet (the last playing only in the outer two of the concerto’s three movements). In this concerto Bach explores not only solo work but also the variety of ways in which the soloists come together in different combinations. In this regard it is important to credit Inouye’s skill at keeping his dynamics under control, always enabling the trumpet to contribute to the blend, rather than rise above it.

Izotov was also featured significantly in the K. 251 divertimento. In many respects he was more of a soloist than Barantschik was, although in the variations movement each of them had his own opportunities for expressive display. Under the leadership of the late George Cleve, the Midsummer Mozart Festival musicians often took a rambunctious approach to the rondo movement of his piece, sometimes suggesting that the oboe was depicting a highly assertive goose. Last night’s reading was more refined, dwelling, instead, on the likelihood that the music had been written for a more polite society. Nevertheless, the interpretation was still fresh and lively, the sort of performance that could easily have interrupted much of the idle social chit-chat.

Davies was clearly built for music on a much larger scale; but it was delightful to witness how effectively the intimacy of all three of the compositions on the program thrived, due, in no small part, to the sensitive attentiveness of Barantschik’s leadership.

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