Thursday’s San Francisco Symphony concert coupled the work of two disparate composers, Johann Sebastian Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich. Frequent guest Juraj Valčuha conducted Bach’s Violin Concerto in E, which is brief and predominantly lively and cheerful, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8, which is vast, bleak, and grim.
Like all intelligent, latter-day composers, Shostakovich revered Bach, and even emulated him by writing his own set of keyboard preludes and fugues in all keys. But aside from showing a mastery of ostinato and passacaglia, there isn’t much Bach-like about the Eighth Symphony.
Bach’s concerto is one of two that he evidently wrote for a music society in Leipzig. It’s charming and intricately constructed, and sometimes carries a sense of balance to extremes. The finale, for instance, repeats the same ritornello passage, alternating with solo turns, verbatim five times. Keeping this from becoming tedious is the conductor’s job. Valčuha led with the pulsing and slightly jerky rhythms he’s learned from Eastern European folk-inspired music, like a well-functioning putt-putt engine that backfires only occasionally. It gave the music just the slightest touch of unexpectedness.
The soloist in the Bach was the Symphony’s principal concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, who often takes the spotlight in Baroque masterpieces. In addition to playing along with the orchestral violins during the tuttis, Barantschik seemed to be doing what he could to meld his sound and playing style with the orchestra. This aspect of the music was smooth and elegant, and virtuosity was displayed modestly.
Shostakovich’s Eighth, written in 1943 in the depths of World War II, is even bigger and darker than the Seventh or “Leningrad” that preceded it by two years. Lacking any of its predecessor’s heroic outcries, it’s even harder to digest. As with the Seventh’s Bolero-like whimsical-to-grotesque invading-army march, the Eighth has one bizarre section impossible to forget. In this case it’s a machine-gun Scherzo. Harsh, dry strings repeat, more implacably than Bach’s ritornello, a ruthlessly fast, staccato ostinato, while the winds drop incendiary bombs from overhead (piercing long-held notes that suddenly plunge and cut out). Suddenly the ostinato mutates into an oom-pah backing for a jaunty trumpet tune, and the listener is startled by the shifts in Shostakovich’s moods.
Its two Scherzos aside — the other is a more typical Shostakovich danse macabre — the symphony is a work of unbroken solemnity in moderate to slow tempos. To be comprehensible and well-formed, a performance needs a conductor who can grasp and mold the whole. Valčuha achieved this less through shaping of the overall structure than by command of the varying moods. Climaxes of screaming intensity, quiet sections of featureless desolation, and effortless abrupt switches between them were impressive features of the orchestra’s performance. Above all, the finale — which Shostakovich later claimed (probably tongue-in-cheek) to be a message that “life is beautiful” — gave off the hard-to-capture enigmatic shrug that also concludes his Piano Quintet and Piano Trio No. 2 from the same period.
Valčuha cultivated a clean and separated orchestral sound in this work. Each orchestral choir, even the percussion, sounded unified in itself and distinct from the others. The resulting sound was somewhat reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, unlikely as that might seem. The highlights lay in the strings, especially in the intertwining and overlapping sound of the string sections in the long opening paragraph of the first movement. But there was clear and dramatic sound coming from all over the orchestra in this symphony.