Reliable Work, If Not Quite Fantastique

United StatesUnited States Prokofiev, Berlioz: Julia Fischer (violin), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 6.3.2014 (HS)

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Perhaps last week’s scintillating traversal of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 set the bar way too high. For this concert, all the pieces seemed to be in place—sonic textures, rhythmic bite, individualistic solos included, for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1. But that extra frisson that emanates from a brilliant performance did not quite get there, even though this program was timed to coordinate with the release of the orchestra’s recording of the Berlioz masterpiece. Captured live last year, the recording carries palpable excitement. Maybe the fact that the first subscription performance occurred Thursday as a matinee had something to do with it, but what we heard then was just a little too tame.

Like the Mahler, the works on this program will be part of the orchestra’s European tour. So in that way, it made perfect sense for the first of four subscription concerts to offer a cautious approach. But last week’s Mahler felt like a celebration of something triumphant, and this came off as a worthy tune-up for the upcoming performances across the Atlantic.

In the Berlioz, music director Michael Tilson Thomas seemed focused on getting all the elements deftly aligned. Strings created richness without losing clarity. Woodwinds wove their sonorities into the orchestral texture while the soloists added color, especially Russ de Luna’s soulful English horn and the yelping E-flat clarinet of Luis Baez. The brass had bite without losing ripeness. Dreamy opening pages gave way to rhythmically deft expressions in the episodic first movement; French elegance infused the waltz elements in the second. The pastoral, languid third movement got off to a beautiful start with the long English horn solo (nicely echoed by acting principal oboe Jonathan Fischer offstage) and flowed smoothly, in some ways the best realized of all the varied effects  in this work.

The raucous fourth movement, the famous “March to the Scaffold,” could have had more of a sense of terror and panic (something this orchestra and conductor usually can conjure at will). The fifth and final section, the “Witches’ Sabbath,” put all of its elements in place neatly. A bit more wild abandon would have lifted it to the top.

Caution was evident in the first-half concerto, too. Violin soloist Julia Fischer looked so demure and precise that it’s easy to forget that she could dig in with her fiddle and get the raw sounds Prokofiev wanted. In the edgy, rhythmically barbaric second movement Scherzo, every hair was in place, both on her head and in the music, and that may have been what kept things from angrying up the blood as it certainly can in the hands of a more overtly fiendish player.

More surprising was how cool and clear the waters were in the lyrical outer movements. Fischer’s sound is pure, her articulation immaculate. It all sounded lovely, even if the melodic thread yearns for warmth. As such, the wonderful final pages, where the music seems to evaporate into thin air, arrived without the desired sense of regret.

All of these artists—the orchestra, soloist and conductor—live at a musical level that pushes boundaries. This time they all seemed conscious about staying inside the lines. It made for a pleasant afternoon. Maybe the excitement will come later.

Harvey Steiman