October 3, 2013

Don't Fear This Beard, It Deserves Strokes

San Francisco Symphony
By Janos Gereben

Heras-Casado on the SFS website In a benign bait-and-switch, the San Francisco Symphony has plastered photos of Pablo ("Babyface") Heras-Casado on its website, on street posters, and elsewhere — but on Thursday when the Spanish conductor appeared for the first of his series of concerts in Davies Symphony Hall, the look-and-feel was very different.

Rather than his advertised appearance, he looked for all the world as a certain Giants relief pitcher, now a frenzied member of the LA Dodgers: full black beard, only somewhat shorter than that of the Fear the Beard man.

And then followed a great concert, with a fascinating mix-and-match program, impressively executed. Combining two of his many interests — Baroque and contemporary — Heras-Casado opened the matinee with two orchestral excerpts from Jean-Baptiste Lully's 1686 opera, Armide, and followed that with Thomas Adès' 2006 Three Studies from Couperin.

The conductor in real life Photo by Burkhard ScheibeThe performance brought the best out of Lully's stately, melodious music, a seven-minute-long steady, seamless, delightful legato.

Adès' work stayed faithful to the sound and spirit of François Couperin (1668-1733), but added subtle, fascinating notes from the percussion and marimba, overlaying the muted strings and the winds. Written for two chamber orchestras, the work was performed in Davies Hall with each section divided on the conductor's left and right; there might have been such an unusual seating arrangement before, but I don't recall any.

It wasn't just having first violins on the left, second violins on the right, but splitting them and all other sections into two. The result was so appealing that it made the listener wonder what other works would sound like using this configuration.

And then, the jewel in the crown of the afternoon, the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, both old (written in 1931) and forever new, with its jagged and joggly rhythms, sweeping forward motion (so well realized in George Balanchine's choreography), and impossible demands on the soloist.

Thursday debut for the beard Photos by Janos GerebenHere, just one more quick reference to appearances, justified (one hopes) by the video on the SFS website of John Adams speaking about Leila Josefowicz as "very glamorous ... gorgeous." Indeed, there was an appreciative murmur in the audience as she first appeared, but then — just like the beard — substance took over from the external-surficial, with a stunning, virtuoso performance of the Stravinsky.

You hear how difficult the concerto is, but when Josefowicz performs it, without a single blown or slurred note — and with miles and miles of heart — there is no visual evidence of anything problematic.

Rather than speculate, I turned to colleague and string player extraordinaire Michelle Dulak Thomson for information about what is it that sounds impossible, even as it is realized so smoothly. The answer:

The main difficulty — the out-of-the-ordinary one, the standout one — is that chord, which features in all the movements.

It contains a double-stop with an E an octave and a third above middle C, and then an A an octave and a fourth over that. So, an eleventh. Violinists are used to tenths — that's about the maximum "normal" interval stretch — but over that is, well, a stretch. Stravinsky is supposed to have asked Samuel Dushkin [who premiered the concerto] whether it was possible to play an eleventh, and Dushkin to have said "no," until Stravinsky clarified that it was in fourth position.

Applauding Leila Josefowitz All the intervals get smaller as you go up the fingerboard. Only a physical freak could play an eleventh in first position on the violin, but in fourth position even I can do it. Barely.

There is, of course, a good number of violinists who have mastered the concerto, Hilary Hahn at the head of the class, but Josefowicz's effortless brilliance is something special. Under Heras-Casado's masterful leadership, the orchestra backed up the soloist with unflagging vitality, in a firework of sonorities.

Balanchine's ballet using this score is one of my greatest favorites, but hearing Stravinsky from the stage, not from the pit — muffled and restrained to fit the dance — makes the music sound as if heard for the first time.

Mendelssohn took over the second half of the program, Heras-Casado conducting a spacious, well-centered performance of the Symphony No. 3 (Scottish), at times bordering on the oversized, approaching the Beethovenesque or Brahmsian, but pulled back to Mendelssohn proper time and again. Once again, the conductor got cohesion and best effort from the orchestra.

The combination of programming and execution makes these subscription concerts a highlight of the young season. Note: There are three more performances, Friday through Sunday.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at janosg@gmail.com.

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