Yesterday afternoon conductor Osmo Vänskä once again returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall for a visit that, sadly, only involves three performances. His soloist was Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, making her SFS debut. The concerto selection was Jean Sibelius’ Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor, a composition that Vänskä knows so well that he has recorded the original version of this concerto, which was completed by the beginning of 1904, as well as the revised version, which was first performed on October 18, 1905 and is the published version that is almost always presented in concerts.
However familiar Vänskä may be with this music, there was a stimulating freshness in the immediacy of his interplay with his soloist. Sibelius wrote out many long extended passages for the violin, many of which are, for all intents and purposes, cadenzas, even when the ensemble inserts punctuation marks. Vänskä’s attention to detail reached all the way down to those punctuation marks, each of which affirmed the narrative character of the concerto itself by asserting its own unique expressive stance. When the ensemble does more than punctuate cadenzas, it is exploring thematic material that frequently contrasts what the violin has been saying, endowing each movement of the concerto with passions that run high and low, almost as if they were on a roller coaster.
For her part Skride had clearly internalized every expressive nuance that Sibelius expected from the violin soloist. Her give-and-take with the ensemble was particularly effective in the final movement (Allegro, ma non tanto), which almost emerged as a depiction of an ancient bard and those listening to the tale with rapt attention. This was very much a concerto in which dramatic qualities counted for as much as virtuoso skill. Because there was never any doubt that Skride and Vänskä shared the same commitment to those dramatic qualities, the result was a thoroughly memorable account of a concerto that now gets frequent exposure in the concert halls.
As an “overture” to this concerto, Vänskä selected what is probably Sibelius’ best known composition, his Opus 26 “Finlandia.” (This was also a case in which Vänskä had recorded the composer’s early effort, a tone poem entitled “Finland Awakes.”) Here, too, he knew how to make every moment signify.
Through Vänskä’s leadership, the attentive listener could appreciate just how meticulous Sibelius was in making decisions as to which instruments would play when and with what qualities. The result was a reading in which the steady flow of contrasts carried as much significance as the familiar themes and motifs. By the time the full ensemble was roaring out the concluding measures, the experience of listening to this warhorse emerged as an stimulating journey that was as fresh as it was unique.
The second half of the program was devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 10 (first) symphony in F minor. This was written when Shostakovich was still in Maximilian Steinberg’s composition course at the Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) Conservatory. It was completed in December of 1925 as a graduation exercise.
The result is a four-movement display of an emerging composer with a rich sense of humor with absolutely no fear in parading his prankishness. The comic gestures in the first two movements are fired off with such rapidity that even the most attentive listener can barely keep up with them. Even after things “get serious” in the third (“Lento”) movement, it is clear that Shostakovich is far from done with identifying targets for nose-thumbing. Finally, when he establishes an ambiguous boundary between the final two movements, it is clear that, when necessary, he can even add a layer of sophistication to his leg-pulling.
Vänskä’s reading of this symphony was straightforward and precise. He did not have to point out any of the jokes, because each one spoke for itself perfectly well on its own. Nevertheless, he also knew how to push the limits of rapidity during the second (Allegro) movement; and Robin Sutherland’s work at the piano keyboard almost gave the impression that he was channeling Charlie Chaplin. The result was a reading of this composition that made it sound less like a student exercise and more like an “opening statement” of the Shostakovich canon with a clear agenda of where the composer sought to take his creative imagination, apparently free of any fear of how Soviet authorities would react to what they thought was too much creativity or imagination.