Last night visiting conductor Krzysztof Urbański returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall for the first performance of the second program he had prepared for his visit. The entire first half of the program was devoted to Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 104 cello concerto in B minor. The concert had been planned for the SFS debut of Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta, but her newborn baby was unexpectedly not able to travel with her. She was replaced by Joshua Roman, who had just performed last week as a recitalist for San Francisco Performances and had made his SFS debut in February of 2010 under the baton of Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt.
Roman’s repertoire is impressively diverse and eclectic. He played Joseph Haydn (the Hoboken VIIb/1 concerto in C major) with Blomstedt, while last week’s program involved all living composers (one acting as an arranger) with Roman as one of those composers. For all of that breadth of tastes, Dvořák’s Opus 104 probably marked the closest Roman has come to playing an unabashed warhorse in San Francisco. The music positively gushes with sentiment, but its emotional intensity never crowds out the consummate skill behind the concerto’s structure.
Indeed, it is only when one gets away from the recordings and experiences the immediacy of a concert performance that one can begin to recognize many of the subtleties the composer has engaged. As a lover of chamber music, I have particular affection for the duo work that couples the concerto soloist with the concertmaster (Jeremy Constant). This is music in the final movement that soars even higher than the solo cadenza passage for the Adagio ma non troppo (second) movement. On the orchestral side Urbański stationed two trumpeters in the uppermost tier for the “farewell fanfare” that emerges near the concerto’s conclusion.
As was the case with his first program, Urbański conducted the concerto without a score. Not only the soloist but also every member of the ensemble had his full attention for every single measure of this piece. His approach to rhetoric enabled even the first-time listener to appreciate just how extensive was the emotional palette upon which Dvořák drew to shape each of the composition’s three movements. At the same time, those who can no longer count the number of times they have listened to this concerto could appreciate the in-the-moment freshness that was so firmly under the command of both conductor and soloist. It is hard to imagine a past occasion when Dvořák was better served.
As might be expected, Roman returned to play an encore. He dedicated it to all of the victims of the many fires in the northern counties. His intention was to summon up a more meditative spirit in the wake of Dvořák at his most impassioned. He achieved his goal through a movingly expressive account of the Sarabande movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1007 solo cello suite in G major. Bach may have written this music for pedagogical purposes, but last night it was there to help heal many wounded souls. Roman knew exactly how to let the music speak for itself, which is just what the occasion required.
However, the first half of the evening proved to be a tough act for the second half to follow. Urbański followed the intermission with a vigorous account of the overture Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed for his K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. While his attentiveness to detail was as keen as it had been for the Dvořák concerto, he was a bit too blustering for what amounts to a light-hearted fairy-tale cooked up for suburban entertainment. Nevertheless, one could still appreciate the wit behind the music, which made for a refreshing contrast.
More problematic was the major work on the second half, the three-movement composition that Witold Lutosławski called “Concerto for Orchestra.” The title was clearly inspired by Béla Bartók, as was the composer’s intention to give voice to the full diversity of instruments found in the symphony orchestra. However, while Bartók had designed five well-crafted structural frameworks, each of which situated those instruments in different contexts, Lutosławski’s structures came across as somewhat arbitrary; and, in the last of the piece’s three movements, they were downright lumbering. Those more familiar with the folk sources upon which the composer drew for his thematic material may have found it easier to orient themselves. However, even when working with similar folk sources, Bartók always knew how to keep his rhetoric in the concert hall. In disappointing contrast, last night’s performance suggested that thoughts of convincing rhetoric did not occupy much of Lutosławski’s attention.