Bryce Dessner’s new concerto lights a fiddle fire under the San Francisco Symphony

United StatesUnited States Various: Pekka Kuusisto (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 22.10.2021. (HS)

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), SFS and Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) © Stefan Cohen

BeethovenLeonore Overture No.2

Bryce Dessner – Violin Concerto

Schubert – Symphony No.5 in B flat major

One by one, audiences are getting acquainted with the eight ‘collaborative partners’ involved in San Francisco Symphony’s 2021-22 season, a group comprising talents that, in most cases, stretch beyond the confines of what we call classical music. It was jazz bassist and vocalist esperanza spalding on opening night, and last week the flutist Claire Chase. This week we got a twofer, as composer Bryce Dessner and violinist Pekka Kuusisto delivered an exhilarating violin concerto, an SF Symphony commission that is getting its U.S. premiere in these concerts.

Dessner, whose résumé includes founding the rock group The National and writing the score for the film The Revenant, both Grammy Award winners, composed the concerto for Kuusisto, his longtime friend. Artistic Director of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and Artistic Partner with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Kuusisto has made a name as a virtuoso violinist and gifted improviser.

All those attributes went into this whirlwind performance. The concerto burst from the gate at breakneck speed, all rhythmic energy and fiddle wizardry. Kuusisto had zero chance to take his violin from under his chin for the entire 25-minute piece. There was no standing around while the orchestra established the main themes, a staple of virtually every other concerto.

As Dessner made a point to note in his introductory remarks, he used the broad outlines of classical concerto form. He fit the movements into the usual pattern of fast, slow, fast, and he included an extensive solo cadenza to bridge the first two movements. The music called for virtuoso playing and plenty of by-play involving both soloist and orchestra.

But it didn’t sound like just another concerto. The first movement felt like being in a race car, with Kuusisto sawing away in an amped-up minimalist style that combined his country-inflected fiddling with offbeat staccato chords in the orchestra (a callback to the Samuel Barber concerto finale?). As the rhythms evolved, the sense of forward momentum never flagged.

When the pace finally slowed and the musical texture thinned out, Kuusisto shaped a long and expressively lyrical cadenza, applying delicate filigree to nicely sustained melodic lines. This led without pause to a shorter second movement (a nod to the Mendelssohn concerto’s bridge to its finale?). The movement centered on a chorale in the strings, with each player given a separate line. If the intricacies of this polyphony were not obvious to hear, they produced a span of sweet peace before the finale revved things up again without a break to catch one’s breath. The finish landed with more flashy playing from the soloist and sharply defined syncopation.

For his part, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen made suave work of the busy orchestra’s music, landing the tricky rhythms and syncopations with admirable unity. If the complexity of the ensemble sometimes submerged the soloist’s sound, that seemed to be intentional. Kuusisto’s violin emerged clearly when it counted.

Dessner, who lives in Paris, wrote the concerto last year in southwest France where he and his family stayed during the pandemic lockdowns. The composer found inspiration in an Anne Carson essay on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, one path of which passes by the house. He saw parallels to his own musical journey with this concerto – a long trek that many have taken, with artifacts left behind that could be used by pilgrims (although it’s doubtful any of them galloped at quite the pace of this music).

For an encore, Kuusisto improvised an extra layer of glosses to an otherwise tranquil and understated Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s Partita in D minor, a perfect contrast with the busy-busy of the concerto.

The rest of the concert was puzzling. The opening emphatic chords of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.2 did, in their own way, anticipate the opening measures of the new concerto. Or maybe programming it was a nod to San Francisco Opera’s current offering of Fidelio across the street (for which this overture was one of three the composer rejected, but they still show up in concerts). Regardless, Salonen and the orchestra rendered it enthusiastically.

The same could not be said of the Schubert Symphony No.5. Salonen shaped it into a tidy, mild-mannered, uneventful thing. Granted it is not Schubert’s most dramatic music, but the performance revealed nothing beyond antique prettiness.

Harvey Steiman

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