Larcher, Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams in San Francisco.

Larcher, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams: San Francisco Symphony, Osmo Vänskä (conductor), Alexander Barantschik (violin), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 9.4.2011 (HS)

In his comments about Red and Green, a new work for orchestra making its world premiere in the San Francisco Symphony’s April 9-11 subscription concerts, Austrian composer Thomas Larcher writes of two forms of energy playing against each other. “(They) have strong links to each other,” he writes, “elements of the one already existing in the other.”

It sounds like a fine idea, one that could unify a work with disparate elements. Larcher clearly has command of orchestral textures and sonorities, and his writing for an orchestra reflects impressive technical prowess. He uses his outsized forces sparingly except for several large climaxes. What was not apparent on first hearing, however, was any coherent meaning to the dissonances and musical gestures. The moments occur, and then they morph into something somewhat different, but not different enough to require the interweaving of which the composer writes. The piece doesn’t seem to want to make a statement. It’s just there: a pleasant, not-too-dissonant 15 minutes.

The same could be said for the performance that followed of one of the most familiar works in the concert repertory, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. Alexander Barantschik, the orchestra’s concert master, got the solo assignment, which he dispatched with clarity and humility. He seemed content to jog through the music without adding his own stamp, not something one usually hears when the soloist has a big international name. The effect was curious. On the one hand, it was nice to hear Mendelssohn’s music without any added sugar or grand gestures. On the other hand, something seemed to be missing.

Perhaps it was simply a matter of volume. The sound from Barantschik’s instrument, the 1742 Guarnerius del Gésu, came off as wiry and thin, considerably softer than what we are used to hearing (even from his own solo work in the concert master’s chair). Although this added to that sense of humility and refinement, it also sucked some of the power from the music. (It didn’t help that conductor Osmo Vänskä seldom tried to hold back the orchestral volume, either.)

The 19th-century virtuoso Ferdinand David owned this particular violin and probably used it when he played the world premiere of the Mendelssohn concerto in 1845. The instrument was bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco by Jascha Heifetz, who acquired it in 1922. As concert master, Barantschik plays the instrument, known as “the David,” on loan from the museums.

After intermission, Vänskä conducted a beautifully shaped performance of Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony. He seemed to emphasize the transitions between sections on this episodic work, reveling in the orchestral colors and rapidly shifting character of the various scenes. The slow movement and the scherzo-nocturne conjured a delicious atmosphere. The brass section distinguished itself in the outer movements with rotund oratorical flourishes.

Harvey Steiman