Pablo Heras-Casado conducting without baton (photograph by Renske Vrolijk, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)
Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Pablo Heras-Casado gave the first of the three performances of the program he prepared for his latest visit to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony. Heras-Casado has been making these visits regularly since his debut in 2010, and he has consistently presented programs that stimulate through both the adventurous and new perspectives on the familiar. Last night the intermission served as the boundary between those two categories, followed only by Johannes Brahms’ Opus 68 (first) symphony in C minor.
However, without trying to detract from Brahms, it would be fair to say that the high point of the evening came before the intermission with the performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 129 (second) violin concerto in C-sharp minor with SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik as soloist. Like Heras-Casado, Barantschik commands a broad scope of repertoire, exercising it not only from the Concertmaster’s chair but also from the SFS podium and in chamber music performances with his colleagues. Within that vast scope of repertoire, both Heras-Casado and Barantschik seemed to share the opinion that Shostakovich’s final concerto (the last of six) was something special; and that opinion had no trouble venturing into audience space and establishing itself as a significant meme in the consciousness of the attentive listener.
One way to approach this concerto is to begin by looking at the key selection. As has been previously observed, C-sharp minor was the key of Sergei Prokofiev’s final (seventh) symphony; and it would not be out of the question to hypothesize that death was on the respective minds of both composers. Indeed, there is even a clock ticking during the coda of the final movement of Prokofiev’s symphony, serving not only as a recollection of the arrival of midnight in his Cinderella ballet but also of a much darker “sense of an ending.”
The Shostakovich concerto almost feels as if it begins in that enveloping darkness that closes off Prokofiev’s symphony. That darkness pervades the first two movements with the unfolding of an impressive diversity of contexts. The very first of those contexts comes with the imitative counterpoint in the string section based on little more than a four-note gesture. That passage almost sounds as if it could have been written for string quartet, perhaps in the spirit of another significant composition in C-sharp minor, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 131 string quartet, also written near the end of the composer’s life. That context, however, is punctuated by not only the solo violin part but also the introduction of other instrumental voices in the ensemble.
For all of that variety, the deepest darkness has been reserved for a series of cadenzas executed by the soloist. These pervade the first two movements, culminating in an extended cadenza that provides the transition to the final movement. On the other side of that transition, the mood shifts abruptly and startlingly. The tempo launches headlong into Allegro and the rhetoric turns grotesquely ironic. It would not be out of line to compare it to the I’m-not-dead-yet episode at the beginning of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; nor would it be out of line to imagine Shostakovich showing signs of amusement at that episode.
All this should convince the reader that Shostakovich’s Opus 129 is no ordinary concerto journey. Both Heras-Casado and Barantschik clearly grasped all of the idiosyncrasies within and behind the music, giving each of them the most convincing account imaginable. In light of how much intensity spilled off the stage and into the audience, one could appreciate that this is not the sort of music used for relaxation at the end of a hard day; nor is it likely to assume “regular favorite” status. Nevertheless, it definitely deserves occasional visits simply to make sure that the darkness of Shostakovich’s life does not fade from memory.
Far more abstract was the opening selection, the SFS premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Helix.” This may best be described as an attempt to translate, through musical structure, the key properties of the helix as it is based on the geometry of the cone. Through those abstractions, Salonen created a framework for both instrumental colors and the motivic patterns associated with those colors. The piece lasts only about ten minutes and definitely does not overstay its welcome.
Nevertheless, the connection between the theoretical foundation and the surface structure of the music itself is far from self-evident. Still, one can appreciate the diversity of the sonorities and the gradual increase of tempo as the music progresses. The overall effect is somewhat like that of an abstract painting viewed for the first time. It is only after one returns to the painting several times that informed perception begins to take hold of consciousness. “Helix” is definitely music that deserves several opportunities for follow-up listening.
Because the Brahms symphony is so familiar, it has its own challenges in presentation. These involve the issue of managing the points of climax, making sure that there are very few significant moments that rise above the many others that Pierre Boulez has called the “lesser peaks.” Heras-Casado seemed to have opted for what statisticians sometimes call a “bathtub distribution,” where the high points are an the very beginning and very end, separated by a low-level trough. Needless to say, Heras-Casado invoked any number of subtle changes in intensity while negotiating that “trough;” but there was a clear sense that he wanted the impact of the final gesture to be a reflection of the opening one. This turned out to work in practice just as well as it looked in theory, resulting in an account of an old favorite that could not have been fresher.