With Barber’s Violin Concerto, Shaham Saves the Day

United StatesUnited States Schreker, Barber, Beethoven: Gil Shaham (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Juraj Valčuha (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 16.3.2017. (HS)

Schreker – Chamber Symphony

Barber – Violin Concerto

Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A Major

The finale of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, a finger-busting perpetual-motion machine, requires the soloist to execute rapid-fire triplets and wide skips for all but a couple dozen measures. All the while a bustling orchestra races breathlessly alongside. It’s high on anyone’s degree-of-difficulty list. Even the best strain to get all the notes in accurately; fashioning it into sleek, lyrical music is rare.

Gil Shaham made it look, and sound, effortless. His performance with the San Francisco Symphony, heard Thursday in Davies Symphony Hall, spun out the first two highly lyrical movements with remarkable presence, sweetness, emotional precision and lucidity. He shaded phrases with delicacy and subtle attention to dynamics and tone, and it was jaw-dropping to hear these characteristics carried over to the breakneck finale.

Every note sounded clearly, with a silvery sense of rhythm. The shifting time signatures and spinning-wheel relentlessness never fazed him. All poured out as if it were a skip through the park, giving a sense of light-heartedness. Guest conductor Juraj Valčuha, music director of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Italy, led the orchestra in a taut performance of this finale.

To set up this tour de force, consciously or unconsciously, Valčuha and Shaham made the other two movements unabashedly lyrical and Romantic, favoring fleet tempos without losing any of the music’s emotional point. The sweet opening statement, which can easily turn overly sentimental, unfurled with delicately framed urgency. Where the pulse can lag in the second movement Andante, the long oboe melody (played here with generosity of spirit by principal Eugene Izotov) set a tone of warmth and majesty that Shaham developed into quite a rhapsody. Gestures such as the filigree rising phrases that mark transitions, became mists of color that evaporated at the top.

For an encore, Shaham played the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s E major Partita for Unaccompanied Violin with a winning combination of rhythmic vitality, shimmering tone, and just enough extra grace notes to bring a smile.

In a brightly paced performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, rather than impose a conductor’s gloss, Valčuha let the music bounce along, shading here and shaping a bit there, but mostly focusing on energy and momentum. Deft it wasn’t. He got out of the way and let Beethoven be his rowdy self.

These performances made up for a yawner of an opener. Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony was the toast of Vienna when it debuted in 1916 at the conservatory where the composer taught, but in its first San Francisco Symphony performance it displayed an uneasy mix of quasi-Debussy harmonies and sturdy Germanic structure. A sprinkling of piano-celesta-harp seasoning added a touch of charm, but not quite enough.

Fortunately, the program offered plenty to appreciate, especially in the concerto.

Harvey Steiman

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