From Mozart’s Delicacy to Ravel’s Extravagance

United StatesUnited States Liszt, Mozart, Ravel: Gil Shaham (violin), San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 11.7.2014 (HS)

Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1 for Orchestra
Mozart: Violin Concerto 5 in A major
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

In a program the San Francisco Symphony is taking on its 14-day U.S. tour commencing later this week, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and violinist Gil Shaham gave the home audience a reminder of their individual and collective stylistic range. Heard Friday, in the second of four performances, the program showed off much of what this ensemble can do, contrasting the subtlety and delicacy of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major  with rainbow scene-painting by Liszt (Mephisto Waltz No. 1) and Ravel (Daphnis et Chloé).

The orchestra’s tour takes it to Carnegie Hall in New York Nov. 19-20, preceded by stops in Kansas City, Ann Arbor, Cleveland, Boston and Princeton, and concludes in Miami. Programming for the tour also includes Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, Samuel Adams’ Drift and Providence, and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, also with Shaham.

The big, broad strokes and shimmering colors of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé—not the oft-played Suite No. 2 but the full “symphonie choreographique,” the hour-long ballet, complete with chorus—made for a rich and, at times, overstuffed main course. On display was the full sonic arsenal of these instrumentalists and voices. Strings spun out billowing curtains of finely honed satin and velvet. Brass provided polished chords and pungent punctuation, and the woodwinds gave plenty of swirling charm, all with deft seasoning from an outsized percussion section. The chorus, always a force, articulated the wordless score like another section of the orchestra. But lasting one hour, the full score contains dance sequences that might have been fascinating to see, but in concert can have one consulting one’s watch, awaiting another high point in the wide musical landscape.

Among the score’s highlights was Tim Day’s long and florid flute solo, brief but eloquent melodic statements by concertmaster Alexander Brantschik and associate principal cellist Peter Wyrick, and sleek trumpet work from principal Mark Inouye. (Some of the Daphnis performances on tour substitute the Suite No. 2 and, except in New York, omit the chorus.)

In contrast to this extravagance, the concert opened with a pungent appetizer, Liszt’s rhythmically gripping Mephisto Waltz No. 1. The low strings and brass caught all of the raw-boned accents that enliven the opening section of the orchestral version, but missed a bit during the seductive, almost languid flute and harp music in the more familiar final section. As the energy and precision of the opening bars dissipated, the music did not quite find the intended eerie allure to give the finish comparable impact.

With all this flash in the surrounding works, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 proved an island of serenity and grace. As always, Shaham applied impeccable technique with restraint and precision, totally engaged with surrounding musicians. When a phrase called for harmonizing briefly with another solo violin he stepped close to associate principal Nadya Tichman to execute it with a bit of extra warmth. Even while at rest, Shaham remained attentive to what’s going in the orchestra, responding with body language to every rhythmic thrust and harmonic shift.

The music reflected aurally all that visual stimulus—one reason a Shaham performance can be so rewarding—and audience response was thunderous. Alas, there was no encore—too much Ravel still to come.

Harvey Steiman

Leave a Comment