Joshua Bell in an Exhilarating Tchaikovsky Concerto

United StatesUnited States  John Adams, Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky: Joshua Bell (violin), San Francsico Symphony, Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 9.4.2015 (HS)

John Adams: Chamber Symphony
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1 (Op. 9b)
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major

This San Francisco Symphony evening seemed like two different concerts. The first half paired two chamber symphonies from opposite ends of the 20th century; the second simply reveled in the romantic glories of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. From a performance standpoint, conductor Pablo Heras-Casado gave each piece careful attention and vigorous presence, but the tripwire communication and color that he and violinist Joshua Bell got out of the concerto was the thing to behold.

 Programming the Adams and Schoenberg made a lot of sense. Both composers were at a stylistic turning point when they penned these works. Schoenberg in 1906 was ready to throw aside tonality and focus on serialism, but not quite yet. Adams in 1992 was consciously breaking the shackles of strict minimalism in favor of a more complex and expansive musical palette. He cites the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony as an inspiration—if not necessarily a strict model—for his own.

 The Adams work—in its first performance by this orchestra—came off as a bit choppy. Surprisingly, given the orchestra’s longstanding devotion to this composer’s music, the performance missed some of the music’s essential jauntiness. The focus seemed to be on the thorny harmonies and bristling rhythms instead of the sly wit suggested by the titles of the individual movements. “Mongrel Airs” was a repudiation of the strict minimalists who felt Adams was abandoning them. “Aria With Walking Bass,” the slow movement (perhaps more accurately, “wandering bass,” given its direction), brings an innate cheekiness to the oddly-shaped long melody. And “Roadrunner” takes its inspiration from the fidgety scores for 1950s and 1960s-era cartoons. It held together but a wilder ride would have been more enjoyable.

 It’s difficult music to execute. Just getting the jittery rhythms in sync within the orchestra, and the drum kit accompanying it, proved a bit more of a challenge than expected. But it’s dazzling music and when it did come together it was easy to see how this composer was redefining himself.

 The Granada-born Heras-Casado, currently the principal conductor of The Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York, seemed more at home in Schoenberg’s world. He brought out the long narrative of this work, allowing plenty of space for individual moments to show their orchestral colors. Rhythms pulsed under the complex polyphony as harmonies edged right up to the limits of tonality. Somehow, Heras-Casado managed to imply all the way through that, if we were patient, this exploration would eventually resolve itself into a blaze of E-major on the final pages. The result was immensely satisfying.

 After intermission, back in the familiar bosom of the popular romantic-era concerto, Bell and Heras-Casado were completely in sync with each other, with an emphasis on precision—both within the orchestra and in the soloist’s confident execution of every detail—and how it all fit together. Bell brought a sense of freshness and sprightliness to the familiar strains, using brilliant dynamic shadings and coloring his sound with an amazing range of tonal nuances. This performance was spacious, with breaths between phrases, and tempos flexing naturally where appropriate. When the pace picked up for the exhilarating final pages of the outer movements, especially the fleet dash through the finale, it was absolutely locked-in rhythmically.

 Harvey Steiman

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