Dutiful, Unexceptional Work from Conlon

United StatesUnited States Britten, Mozart, Dvořák: Jan Lisiecki (piano), San Francisco Symphony, James Conlon (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 11.6.2016 (HS)

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major
Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major

After the opening night of this week’s San Francisco Symphony subscription concerts, early reports were unenthusiastic. In the third performance on Saturday evening, the young Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki and veteran conductor James Conlon acquitted themselves dutifully, if unexceptionally, in a program that swung from early Britten, to one of Mozart’s most often-played concertos, and concluded with a carefully rendered Dvořák symphony.

Coaxing big sound from the orchestra and favoring slow-and-go tempos, Conlon created a strangely monochromatic effort. Occasionally a soloist or section would perk things up with incisive playing, such as the brass interjections and looping clarinet duos in Dvořák’s Eighth  Symphony, but for the most part Conlon seemed more intent on changing tempos where none were indicated in the scores, to no obvious effect.

He opened the Dvořák by taking the soft-textured introductory measures significantly slower than the “Allegro con brio” marking, exaggerating the difference when the winds enter with the main theme in double time. The whole performance had a manipulated quality that belied the nuanced way Dvořák expresses a love of nature and the outdoors.

Going for thicker textures did not do the musical scene-painting any favors, either. By maximizing contrasts in tempo rather than shading timbres to fit the narrative, the result was—though not exactly plodding—not vigorous, either. The big brass perorations at the end placed a simple period on the musical buildup rather than an exclamation point.

Lisiecki and Conlon seemed to approach Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 from two very different directions. Conlon got the orchestra to muscle up the volume more than usual while Lisiecki steadfastly held to an almost brittle crispness and transparency. The differences were not blatant, but it was clear the pianist would have fit better with a more deftly balanced orchestra.

Lisiecki also chose cadenzas that favored complex, detailed runs and more freedom of rhythmic movement than his approach to the concerto proper. If nothing else it gave a taste of what could have been if he and the conductor had found a bit more common ground.

Conlon addressed the audience before Britten’s 1940 Sinfonia da Requiem, which he said was among his favorites, noting that it could be heard as an embryonic version of his later War Requiem, one of the towering works of the 20th century. Indeed, the piece strikes a unique Britten-esque balance between depression and anger: its strange central “Dies irae” movement sounds more of jitters than mortal fear. The most affecting aspect of this performance, after 15 minutes of sudden shifts in rhythm and sound, was the balm of the final fading measures of the third and last movement, “Lux Aeterna.”

Harvey Steiman

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