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West of Russia

July 1, 2008

Russian music is internationally popular and much programmed. But for last week's San Francisco Symphony concerts under guest conductor David Robertson, we got three masterpieces by Slavic composers born west of Russia: a Pole, a Slovak, and a Czech. Robertson opened with Witold Lutoslawski's Mi-Parti (1976), then conducted Leoš Janáček's Taras Bulba (1918), and as his closing work presented Antonin Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 (1895). The cellist in the concerto was a young American, Alisa Weilerstein.
As repertoire goes, it's pretty well agreed that Bach wrote "The" Passion (meaning the St. Matthew), Mozart "The" Serenade (Kleine Nachtmusik), and Mendelssohn "The" Octet. If you get into ranking symphonies, operas, or sonatas, you've got a fight on your hands, but it's a sure bet that Dvořák wrote the greatest of all cello concertos. None other quite matches it in emotional scope, weight of profundity, use of modality, or lyrical beauty. I have always considered the little quiet epilogue of the concerto one of the greatest passages in all of Romantic music, and still do.

The daughter of violinist Donald Weilerstein, founder of the Cleveland Quartet, young Alisa played an admirable, if not always rhythmically flawless, solo. Her intonation was excellent in even the most challenging passages, and she proved first rate, as well, in her appreciation for the score's flexible dynamic shifts.

But she sometimes rushed or stretched figuration, presumably feeling that was an interpreter's license. Sorry, but I don't agree. An eighth note followed by two sixteenths doesn't work as a triplet. It bordered on a dictum drummed into me in my youth: "The right note in the wrong place is a wrong note." That she mugged her way along with all that fake showbiz swooning — eyes closed, head back in a sway — was nothing more than a distraction from the essential purpose of any performance, the music. So the young Weilerstein was good on Friday, but deserves no gold star.

Robertson had reduced the string section of the orchestra by a bit, a good idea when supporting a genteel-voiced cello. On the other hand, when the orchestra had its tutti passages, he encouraged the players into roaring strength, creating a more heroic impression of the concerto than I'd ever before encountered. In the long run, I found that a different strategy, but a convincing one. And boy, how the orchestra played for him. Beautiful solos from first chair musicians abounded, not least from Acting Concertmaster Nadya Tichman.
Having It All
Lutoslawski's Mi-Parti encompasses everything of his mature style, and that does not exclude much from developments of 20th-century music. Like Bach, he brought together assorted major elements of the century and then blended all of them, pushing them forward. That's why he can't be pigeonholed into one "ism" or another.

He often favored an Impressionistic fog of blended tones, mostly atonal with minor elements from Schoenberg or Berg. But then, he also used free passages — aleatory, as Boulez dubbed them — wherein the players are given the notes minus the exact rhythmic values. John Cage or Morton Feldman built their careers on this. There were times, for instance, when Robertson stopped beating time and simply held up fingers of one hand high about his head. The number of fingers indicated which free section to play: one finger for the first, then two, then three.

Folksy elements may also appear in the work, although those were mostly absorbed into Lutoslawski's early compositions, before 1955. Hints of that turned up in Mi-Parti, fleetingly, like ghosts of the past.

Lasting about a quarter hour in a single movement, Mi-Parti offers something from all the textures I've mentioned. It opens with soft strings, punctuated as they move along by some of the composer's signature fanfare figures from the winds and brass. Scored for very large orchestra, the music constantly brims with bravura orchestral sounds. For sonic splendor, you would have to go as far back as Ravel's or Respighi's big orchestral pieces to match those in Mi-Parti.

Basically, the form is that of an introduction and Allegro, but with both sections interrelated. Indeed, the title means something like "two views of the same object." It's similar to seeing a person first from up front and then from the rear. The views are quite different, yet they're essentially just two aspects of a single person. The wonder is that Lutoslawski could be so subtle and logical in his organizing of materials that everything is immediately meaningful and acceptable to the average concertgoer at first hearing. It all ends up sounding as inevitable as a Debussy Prelude.
Unreal World
Janáček's full title, Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra, is rather misleading, as the work consists of three rhapsodic tone poems, based on Nicolai Gogol's short novel about the heroics of the Cossack leader Taras Bulba. The deaths of Bulba's two sons are depicted in the first two movements, his own in the third. It is not, however, remotely morbid music.

The work's textures are ever surprising: furious one moment, then innocent folk melody the next. There's something almost Kafka-like in Janáček's instrumental textures, suggestive as they are of some fascinating world of unreality. What better textures for an epic tale?

Curiously, by some means, Taras Bulba holds its line throughout, helped by sometimes quirky orchestration effects that create searing climaxes. That was illustrated by the wildly appreciative audience reaction to the performance. Ovation followed ovation in what seemed like a parade of demanded bows.

Of course, much of this was attributable to Robertson's splendid control of the orchestra, which outdid itself in brilliance. Balances, entrances, careful shifting in dynamics, and glaring bravura were the hallmark of the performance. As I was in the aisle before intermission, I heard one woman saying to her male companion, "It's a really good symphony evening." Sure was.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.