United States Haydn, Rimsky-Korsakov: Alicia Weilerstein (cello), San Francisco Symphony, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 19.2.2014 (HS)
Haydn: Symphony No. 6 in D Major “Le Matin”
Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major
In conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos’s first appearance before the San Francisco Symphony since 1985, the contrasts were legion between the two program halves. A couple of early Haydn works made morsels of delicacy and refinement before intermission, the conductor working with the reduced forces of a chamber ensemble. The second half unleashed the full forces of a modern symphony orchestra—blazing brass, sinuous woodwinds and six percussionists bringing the full of palette to bear from perhaps the most colorful orchestrator of them all, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
His signature mane of flowing hair now closely shaved, Frühbeck de Burgos looked sprightly for his 80 years, slimmer if slightly gaunt. He conducted with big gestures, which may or not have been responsible for some heavy-handed passages in the Haydn Symphony No. 6, which opened the proceedings. The first measures—a gentle crescendo meant to depict the sun rising—could have been, well, more luminous. But there certainly was plenty of energy, and a take-no-prisoners approach to tempo in faster passages. The musicians of the orchestra had no problems keeping up and responding to this conductor’s urgings.
All this made the seldom-heard symphony a cheerful romp, lavishly sprinkled with solos and duets from each principal, most notably violist Jonathan Vinocour, cellist Michel Grebanier and bassoonist Stephen Paulson.
For my money Frühbeck de Burgos did his best work in Haydn’s First Cello Concerto. The conductor and the soloist, the redoubtable Alisa Weilerstein, were clearly on the same page, making haste without waste. Despite rapid tempos, Weilerstein articulated tricky scales and passages with so much ease she sometimes had to hesitate a split second for the next phrase’s downbeat. This pushing of the tempo, combined with the crispness of her articulation, created excitement without losing the gracefulness of Haydn’s early Classical style. For his part the conductor kept the orchestra on an even keel so that Weilerstein could emphasize contrasts in dynamics and tone, which she did with relish.
The brass statement that opens Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade set the tone for what was to come over the next 45 minutes. If you look up “orotund” in the dictionary—“deep, sonorous, strong, powerful, full, rich, resonant, loud, booming”—this was exactly that, with emphasis on the “booming,” just this side of over-the-top. The statement’s slow pace made it feel slightly ponderous, an adjective that could apply at several points where the conductor felt the need to decelerate at climactic moments.
The popular suite is, of course, a musical evocation of the “One Thousand and One Nights” legend, a framing device for a collection of Middle Eastern stories. Scheherezade, the latest wife of a sultan who executes each of his wives as he tires of them, must keep him intrigued enough by her nocturnal storytelling to live another day. Eventually, she wins him over. Rimsky’s music covers four scenes, linked by a series of solo violin cadenzas that represent Scheherezade herself. Associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman executed them with remarkable grace and precision.
The myriad orchestral solos, each evoking certain characters, got highly distinctive interpretations, although with more rubato and bending of phrases than we usually hear. Much better were the duets and ensembles that emerge from the tumult, each bringing its own colors to the kaleidoscope. The woodwind chords that introduce the opening violin solo and recur at the end were especially well voiced. Galloping passages that used the full resources of the orchestra were balanced and exciting.
It was a crowd-pleasing effort, but whether due to the big conducting gestures or a general letting out the reins, the result could have used tad more refinement.