Last night Davies Symphony Hall hosted the first of three performances of the first of two programs prepared by Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański visiting the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). The program itself followed the usual overture-concerto-symphony format; but there was a freshness in the realization of each of the selections, even the one that was most familiar to most of the audience. That selection was Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 violin concerto in E minor, featuring Augustin Hadelich as the soloist.
Both Hadelich and Urbański made a refreshing case for the premise that the young can sometimes tease out new ways of approaching music when the older generation has concluded that anything that can be said about the piece has already been said. Between these two visitors, the interplay between soloist and ensemble was positively electric; but that was only part of the story. Hadelich took an insightful approach to the solo work in which he presented that single part as a lively conversation around decidedly different opinions. Through his impeccably precise control of individual sonorities, the attentive listener could parse ways in which the solo line could play one opinion against another. This was most evident in the cadenza work; but, as one got used to Hadelich’s style, one realized that it pervaded the entire concerto.
On the ensemble side Urbański presented himself as a full-body conductor, whose style encompassed not only posture and gesture but also facial expressions. In many respects one could say that his actions presented a director who was conversing with his musicians as much as leading them. This was particularly evident through the encouraging physical responses given after an effect he was trying to achieve was realized. Most importantly, there was a sense of intimacy in his conversational approach that meshed perfectly with the intimate conversations taking place within Hadelich’s interpretation of the solo line.
It is worth repeating that Hadelich brought such intimacy to Mendelssohn’s cadenzas (which were written out in full detail). This was also evident in his encore selection, the 21st of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 caprices for solo violin. This one was dedicated to Antonio Bazzini; and, like all of the others, it is a real finger-buster. Nevertheless, for all of the technical challenges that constituted the heart of this piece, Hadelich knew how to tease out a layer of rhetoric. His next recording (on Warner Classics) will present the complete set of these caprices; and it will be worth considering if he can endow the full cycle with as much personality as he summoned for last night’s encore.
That sense of intensely personal rhetoric also pervaded Urbański’s symphony selection, Shostakovich’s Opus 93 (tenth) in E minor. The work is dated 1953, and there is some disagreement over whether Shostakovich had actually written the work several years earlier and hidden it in his famous desk drawer (his hiding place for music that could not be exposed to the authorities). Whether Shostakovich polished off the work after Joseph Stalin died or wrote it from scratch once he did not have to worry about Stalinist authorities breathing down his neck will probably always be an open question.
The result, however, is a thoroughly engaging synthesis of logical and syntactic discipline with intensely felt rhetoric. By the time of Stalin’s death, Shostakovich had written five of his fifteen string quartets; and he definitely had established his voice for the genre. It is therefore fascinating to appreciate the strings-only opening of the first movement of Opus 93 as a continuation of his thoughts about the string quartet genre, perhaps even more than his thoughts about the symphony genre. Throughout the course of the opening Moderato movement, other instruments enter very gradually.
However, once the elegiac qualities of that movement have been established, Shostakovich begins to explore much sharper rhetorical tones, drawing upon the full ensemble for his purposes. Once again (for those familiar with his music) we encounter obsessive repetitions, usually of short motifs; and his “initial motif” (DSCH, the last being the German for B natural while S is E-flat) is decidedly the most obsessive of all. One might almost presume to say that, finally out from under the oppression of Stalinist authority, Shostakovich used this symphony to declare firmly “I AM, and I’m still here!” From such a point of view, one can appreciate the full-out blaze of glory that concludes the final movement.
Urbański was in particularly good form in keeping this broad panorama of expressiveness under control without muting any of the underlying passions. Once again, it was hard to ignore his full-body physical involvement in realizing this score through performance. However, what some might wish to dismiss as mere antics worked quite effectively to establish a rhetorical bond between conductor and ensemble that was as critical and the bonding of the marks on paper to the immediacy of performance. Urbański is far from the first conductor to take such a physical approach to his work, but he may the among the best to engage physicality so effectively for the sake of both semantics and rhetoric.
The “overture” for the program was Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima,” which is probably this composer’s best-known work. Urbański preceded the performance with a moment of silence in memory of the tragedy in Las Vegas at the beginning of this week. Penderecki scored this piece for 52 separate string parts, 24 for violins, ten for violas, ten for cellos, and eight for basses. It is an impressive work of sonority drawing upon non-standard playing techniques and microtonal intonation along with the more conventional methods. Urbański’s opening remarks made it clear that he intensely admired the passion behind this music, and the physical manifestation of his interpretation made it clear that he understood both every detail and the full ten-minute scope of the composition. (He conducted without a score.)
It is worth bearing in mind that Penderecki initially considered this piece simply as a study in the broad scope of possibilities for playing instruments in the string family (perhaps in the spirit of Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza” compositions). The idea of calling the piece a threnody came later. Later still, he found that others heard sounds such as air raid sirens or the low drone of a B-52, which brought the association with the bombing of Hiroshima into the title. Like Urbański we all now take for granted that intensity of emotion in the face of catastrophe constitutes the heart of this music. Some may balk because this was not the composer’s original intent; but this would not be the first work of art to take on a life of its own after its creation!