Via the Viola, a Vivid Italian Tour

United StatesUnited States Berlioz, Haydn: Jonathan Vinocour (viola), San Francisco Symphony, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 17.3.2016 (HS)

Berlioz: “Waverley” Overture
Haydn: Symphony No. 104 in D major, “London”
Berlioz: Harold in Italy

Originally scheduled for this week, the performances of the Berlioz Requiem conducted by the redoubtable Charles Dutoit had been postponed until May 2017. Fortunately, the powers that be at the San Francisco Symphony made a sage move in assigning the spotlight to principal violist Jonathan Vinocour. His performance in the title role of Harold in Italy, Berlioz’s half-symphony, half-concerto (with a smattering of tone poem), lent the requisite lyrical beauty to the composer’s rambunctious and colorful score, and brought the proceedings to a dramatic peak in the performance heard Thursday.

This is not, however, a showoff piece for the viola. The original impetus may have come from the superstar 19th-century violinist, Nicolò Paganini, who had acquired a Stradivarius viola and wanted a showpiece. Berlioz wanted to write something more like his Symphonie fantastique. Inspired by the title character in Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and his own a timely visit to Abruzzi in Italy, Berlioz used the viola’s music to fold into the piece, stating and then expanding on the idée fixe theme that recurs throughout.

In his opening measures Vinocour, looking relaxed and contemplative, responded to Dutoit’s brooding opening orchestral section with playing of serene beauty. The restless orchestral gestures then spurred him to increasingly pointed expression until the end. Vinocour let his viola wander through the orchestra’s bracing scenes portraying joy, prayer, mountain serenades and a final orgy of pillaging, while holding steadfastly onto the instrument’s own inner world. Alternately melancholy, reflective and devout, the violist always found an expressive thread to center his generally quiet interpretation—eloquence in the face of bustling activity.

Dutoit whipped up some fiery moments, shifting in stages from sadness to joy in the opening movement, finding an angelic touch in the second, and carefree song in the third (carried beautifully by english horn soloist Russ de Luna). But it was the finale, which titled “Orgy of the Brigands,” that brought down the house. Rhythmically zesty, punctuated by crisp utterances from the brass and a pair of insistent tambourines, this was Berlioz at his most ebullient. Not so much a bacchanal as a joyride, this music finally renders the viola redundant. At that point, Vinocour just sat down—a wise move, as it put the spotlight on the orchestra—until he stood up for a final solo utterance, a reminder of the character’s serenity, just before the taut finish.

Like Harold in Italy, the first work was inspired by the words of an Englishman—two lines by the poet Walter Scott. The “Waverley” Overture, Berlioz’s Op. 1, displays the vivid sound world, muscular rhythms, and unexpected twists and turns that point directly to his later works. Dutoit’s exuberant approach made it into a tasty opener.

In between came Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, “London.” On its face it has little connection with either Berlioz work, but it got a muscular reading that may have been affected by the vivid music surrounding it. It could have used more deftness, but in the end it galloped to a lively finish.

The concert worked out well, but San Francisco symphony-goers could get whiplash from recent program changes. Sunday’s recital by the pianist Jeremy Denk, originally an intriguing folio of Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and some ragtime, was changed to Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Harvey Steiman

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