When Everything is Wonderful at the Symphony

February 21, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY

Frühbeck de BurgosA concert by the San Francisco Symphony is usually a wonderful experience, but there are always concerts that are more wonderful than others — often for no particular reason; everything simply seems to line up wonderfully well.

The recent series of subscription concerts by the Symphony was such a terrific event, with lauded American cellist Alisa Weilerstein performing Haydn’s graceful Cello Concerto in C, and the eminent Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos serving as the Great Musical Mediator between orchestra, soloist, and audience.

What Frühbeck’s mediation exposed, more than anything, was the passionate excitement with which the Symphony musicians and Weilerstein performed. Watching talented people play beautiful music with dedicated musicianship and such obvious pleasure is perhaps the best of all added benefits of attending a live concert.

With her dazzling dexterity in the final Allegro molto, Weilerstein confirmed the optimistic mood.

The program, in which Haydn’s long-lost first cello concerto (1761–65) was preceded by his Symphony No. 6, Le Matin (1761), and followed, after intermission, by Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem Scheherazade (1888), was ideally suited to highlight just about every aspect of the performance.

The Haydn symphony was full of beautifully satisfying melodies and solo passages for the orchestral soloists (flute, oboe, horn, violin, cello, and even double bass, bassoon, and viola). It also featured plenty of exquisite ensemble playing in the tutti passages by the Symphony’s string section.

Alisa WeilersteinHaydn’s cello concerto, by contrast, is all about the soloist, and Alisa Weilerstein made sure that the audience was fully aware of that. Dressed in a lush, bright-red, strapless gown, she took the lead from the very first note she played, by pushing the tempo somewhat harder than Frühbeck himself, who stepped back to let it all unfold.

Weilerstein’s tone ranges from honey-sweet to almost abrasive (in some of the virtuosic stretches), yet her remarkable lyricism was apparent in the central Adagio of the concerto, in which the cello sings a wordless aria about a certain (yet unattainable) love in some distant land; the optimistic cadenza offers the promise of a happy ending. And with her dazzling dexterity in the final Allegro molto, Weilerstein confirmed the optimistic mood.

And then there was Scheherazade. There is little to add to what the late Michael Steinberg wrote in his program notes about Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite:

Frühbeck needed to do little more than act as the Great Overseer — facilitating the dialogue between composer and orchestra.

Scheherazade is a wonderful piece. It is full of glorious solo opportunities. Its vitality, the charm of its tunes, and the effortless brilliance of its orchestration never fail to make an impression and to give delight.

Glorious, impressive, and delightful it was, indeed. Again, conductor Frühbeck needed to do little more than act as the Great Overseer — facilitating the dialogue between composer and orchestra with only a minimum of direction, honing a melodic phrase here, or highlighting a turn in the musical narration there.

The audience’s warm accolades were well deserved.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.