February 14, 2013
Pablo Heras-Casado took on the San Francisco Symphony guest-conductorship responsibility with high energy and an attractive program Thursday afternoon at Davies Symphony Hall. The West Coast arrival of Magnus Lindberg’s EXPO (2009) proved most welcome under his guidance. Then Stephen Hough brought some sock-it-to-me virtuosity to Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2. But high energy alone was not enough to do justice to Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony after intermission, despite some fine moments that generated an enthusiastic audience reception.
EXPO was a terrific curtain raiser, 10 minutes of alternating string whooshes (reminiscent of Lindberg’s Finnish countrymen Sibelius and Rautavaara) and brass chorales. Heras-Casado’s enthusiasm seemed just right for this piece. It was a joy to watch him conduct it and a pleasure to hear the orchestra do such a fine job of introducing a new work.
A different kind of enthusiasm appeared in the person of British soloist Hough, who walked on stage in Nehru jacket and bright red socks to play the Liszt. His brittle, pounding octaves and shrieking glissandos were simply astonishing to behold. After the concert, I’m sure the piano tuner had a massive chore ahead. There was poetry too in Hough’s softer passages, but his somewhat grim demeanor conveyed little joy in the interpretation. While excellent for the most part, the orchestra unfortunately was not flawless in their rendition of this repertoire staple.
The vitality Heras-Casado brought to the podium for EXPO could have been an augury for the performance of Prokofiev’s grandest symphony, but tempo choices and indiscriminate overall loudness did not help his argument. Like many younger conductors, Heras-Casado placed excessive reliance on faster-than-usual tempos to generate excitement. While speed enhanced parts of the Liszt and Prokofiev’s two faster movements, it did not help the symphony’s third-movement adagio. Nor was the colossal coda of the first movement helped by an abbreviated residence in the ears. It should have been 25 percent slower to bring its power to full effect.
Heras-Casado, a native of Grenada, Spain, has an intuitive grasp of the dance, and is especially good at handling accents much of the time. In the wonderful accelerando of the Prokofiev second movement, however, he was too heavy handed with them, making it sound more like the “Death of Tybalt” from the composer’s Romeo and Juliet than a light scherzo-like movement contrasting with its neighbors.
The conductor seemed unable to exploit the contrasts afforded by quieter passages in the symphony. The quietest it ever got was mezzo piano. Worse, all the loud passages were at equal pedal-to-the-metal fortissimo. I felt he should have considered utilizing gradations of top volumes so that each tutti would have a different character, and that something would be saved to really blast out the coda of the first movement, especially in the percussion. My greatest disappointment occurred at the climax of the third movement, where the triple meter should have been slower, more ponderous, and scary. Then, the main theme should have returned, intense and soaring as a leap of faith to bury fear. Instead, the passages came through as too fast and matter-of-fact.
The symphony has a huge orchestra, and may even be overorchestrated in places (too much tuba, for one thing). But the conductor’s job is to work around its defects through careful choice of tempo, balance, and dynamic range. Heras-Casado succeeded in presenting a good first take on the work that pleased his audience. I look forward to hearing it again from him someday when he can bring more maturity to his interpretation.