Incendiary Tchaikovsky Fourth from Van Zweden

Mozart, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky: Simone Lamsma (violin), San Francisco Symphony, Jaap van Zweden (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 11.2.2014 (HS) Mozart: Overture from Abduction from the Seraglio Sibelius: Violin Concerto Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4  

Head shaven, squat, his suit fitting tightly against broad shoulders, Jaap van Zweden strode to the podium to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and glared almost pugnaciously at the audience, looking for all the world like a bouncer preventing unwanted guests from getting past the velvet rope at a night club. What emerged from the San Francisco Symphony orchestra in the ensuing 40 minutes was a rip-snorting, energetic transversal of this music that shook off the cobwebs from its over-familiarity. Rapid tempos, precision playing and amazing attention to detail (despite the fast clip) added up to an exhilarating performance. He smiled broadly afterwards, taking bows to a roaring standing ovation.

 This marked van Zweden’s debut with this orchestra. The Dutch conductor, music director of the Dallas Symphony since 2008 and the Hong Kong Philharmonic since 2012, opened proceedings with a rhythmically vibrant run through Mozart’s overture to Abduction from the Seraglio, the clangy Janissary music nicely anticipating the blaring fanfares that open and close the Tchaikovsky symphony. In between came a rough-hewn performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto that took until midway through the finale for the soloist, Sophie Lamsma, to catch fire.

 The symphony was easily the highlight of the concert Wednesday evening, the first of two performances. The opening measures served notice that this reading was going to take no prisoners—the claps of orchestral thunder taut, brass fanfares crisp and sharply focused. There was no lollygagging, no taking time to admire the rich, clear sound as some conductors are wont to do, but a sense of inexorable forward motion that never flagged. Make no mistake: every detail was sharply etched here, in the surging string music that follows.

 There was also a palpable arc to the musical narrative, a sense that all these moments fit together into a coherent chapter, and the chapters into a book. The long first chapter, er, movement, after breathlessly weaving its story, gave way to the elegaic Andantino, but even here van Zweden kept things moving along. The lovely falling Russian song in the woodwinds managed to sigh beautifully without slowing things down too much, and passed the lead around deftly, before the whole orchestra expanded upon the theme. It all emerged organically.

 In the Scherzo, the pizzicato strings got things off to a balletic start, the woodwinds picking up the baton into a cheerful folk dance and the brass enunciating their staccatos with a wonderfully soft edge. All of it evaporated like wisps of steam, only for the finale to open with a powerful jolt. With a marvelous sense of jollity, the music careened along until the return of the fateful brass fanfares from the first movement moved matters into more serious territory, and without missing a fraction of a beat—brilliant stuff all around.

 As freewheeling as the symphony was, the concerto felt constrained and weighty. The opening measures—which Sibelius meant to feel like something appearing as if through a fog—felt deliberate, calculated, as did the whole first movement. Lamsma, frowning at her violin and furrowing her brow, looked as if she were struggling, and the music felt like it. Intonation was less than exact. She dug into the strings to coax out extra richness. Though this sometimes paid off in rich, burnished tone, more often it just felt like pushing against a heavy weight. Phrasing felt foursquare rather than spontaneous.

 Though she articulated the big cadenzas with virtuosity, the overall tone missed the mark. It was if she couldn’t quite get into the groove. Even in the lovely Adagio, as adeptly as van Zweden encouraged the orchestra to engage her in a musical conversation, she seemed intent on grinding out as much sound as possible in the climaxes.

 Things changed abruptly and happily about one-third of the way into the finale. Suddenly, as if shifting gears, she found the thread and all was well. Phrases settled into place and, fitting well, soared. Her music had life, natural instead of forced vigor, and it was easy to understand why she is van Zweden’s protégé. As satisfying an end as the concerto came to, I almost wanted her play it again, taking it from the top.

Harvey Steiman