Violin soloist María Dueñas (from the event page for this week’s SFS program)
As was observed about a week ago, October is the month of three conductors visiting the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall. This afternoon the “leader of the pack” was Marek Janowski, whose repertoire tends to the traditional but whose interpretations are consistently imaginative and stimulating. The program for this week’s three concerts was a case in point, an overture-concerto-symphony offering organized around Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 violin concerto in E minor serving as a platform for the SFS debut of sixteen-year-old María Dueñas as soloist.
There is a tendency to view the Mendelssohn concerto as an “old reliable” selection that allows any up-and-coming soloist to display his/her capacity for the right balance of technical legerdemain with expressive interpretation. That reliability often leads to a here-we-go-again reaction from any informed listener concerned that (s)he may have experienced this concerto once too often. Fortunately, both Dueñas and Janowski seemed to agree on a path that would draw attention even among listeners that could probably play back Mendelssohn’s score in their sleep.
Janowski was particularly good at allowing each movement to flow seamlessly into its successor, presenting the whole as a well-oiled engine capable of shifting gears so smoothly that one barely notices the transitions. Nevertheless, both Janowski and Dueñas seemed to share a perspective of an underlying tension over the course of the entire journey. Thus, while Dueñas could sail through both the virtuoso passages and the lyrical thematic lines with an apparent sense of comfortable ease, there was a certain grittiness to her energetic bowing that made it clear that this would not be just another reading of an all-too-familiar concerto. The tension behind that grittiness also found its way into Janowski’s approach to leading the ensemble, reminding listeners that Mendelssohn was one of those nineteenth-century composers eager to honor the innovations of Ludwig van Beethoven but determined to find his own voice in doing so. All too often Mendelssohn’s music is dismissed as being too facile, but facility was definitely not part of the rhetorical stance shared this afternoon by Dueñas and Janowski.
The same could be said of Janowski’s approach to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the symphony selection following the intermission. That selection was Mozart’s final symphony, K. 551 (“Jupiter”) in C major. This score abounds with a diverse variety of opportunities for interplay, not only between the strings and the rest of the instrumentation (flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, and timpani) but also among the five “voices” of the string section (two violins, viola, cello, and bass). Indeed, watching the string section and its engagement with Janowski often felt a bit like watching a string quartet taking on the more ambitious offerings from both Mozart and Joseph Haydn. Serious music students are familiar with K. 551 as a model for polyphonic composition, particularly when all the themes of the final movement are superposed during the coda of that movement. The rest of us can simply enjoy how much always seems to be going on at any given time with so much stimulation that Janowski’s decision to take all repeats could not have been more welcome.
For this visit Janowski turned to the twentieth century for his “overture” selection, presenting Paul Hindemith’s Opus 50, which he called “Konzertmusik for Brass and String Orchestra.” Those arriving early enough to listen to Peter Grunberg’s Inside Music Talk were given a foretaste not only of the imaginative approaches to writing for these two sections of the orchestra but also a sense of humor not always associated with Hindemith. One might almost say that the overall rhetoric oscillates between contentious arguments between the two sections followed by agreeable settlements upon a common ground. Furthermore, as is the case in K. 551, much of that rhetoric unfolds through skills in polyphonic writing that are often splendidly uncanny. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, too many performers tended to dismiss Hindemith for being too stale and academic; but the freshness of Janowski’s interpretation of the “Konzertmusik” made it clear that Hindemith had suffered a bad rap first from the serialists and then from the minimalists. I, for one, hope that the coming crop of conductors will learn a thing or two from Janowski’s insights!