In Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, Josefowicz and Salonen outdo The Rite of Spring in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Elizabeth Ogonek, Stravinsky: Leila Josefowicz (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 10.3.2022. (HS)

Leila Josefowicz and Esa-Pekka Salonen © Brittany Hosea-Small

Elizabeth OgonekSleep & Unremembrance
Stravinsky – Violin Concerto, The Rite of Spring

Leila Josefowicz has made something of a calling-card out of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Known for her allegiance to contemporary music, she throws herself into the motoring rhythms, the brash harmonies and the clashes with a full orchestra. She performs it a lot, but she quickly won over a matinee audience on Thursday afternoon with a performance of freshness and bravado with the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Weekday matinee audiences, populated mainly by older listeners, can be less than enthusiastic, but this one rose with a roar at the final notes of the concerto. And it was fully justified. The concerto outshone both Salonen’s first go as music director with this orchestra on The Rite of Spring and a tone poem by a Stravinsky-inspired American composer, Elizabeth Ogonek.

The chugging rhythmic figures of the first movement danced with muscular grace, both under the violinist’s fingers and in the orchestra responding to Salonen’s deft timing. Soloist and conductor were in perfect sync from the opening phrases, and seemed tied to the same rope through the remaining music.

For her part, Josefowicz launched into the concerto with a smile that belied a fierce intensity in her execution of the unusually broad open chord that serves as the beginning salvo in each of the four movements. Each time she gave it a different twist, leaning into the rhythmic repetitions in the opening toccata, and shaping it with more fluidity in the second, which starts with the same notes but segues into a lovely lyrical aria.

The aria was especially enchanting, her warm reading of the tunes riding along over a quicker tempo than the first movement but offering a different flavor after all that physicality. In the second aria, Josefowicz balanced the frown of a serious slow movement with the lightness and airiness of a salon sonata. The finale, all dazzle and fizziness, brought the proceedings to a joyful ending.

Since his appointment to succeed Michael Tilson Thomas as music director, Salonen has not, for the most part, wandered often into his predecessor’s areas of strength. Among the highlights of his two-year tenure, Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in memorable performances of the big Romantics, including Mahler, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and, especially, Stravinsky. Thus, a program focused on two often-played Stravinsky works begs for comparisons.

If the concerto flirted with perfection, The Rite of Spring was something different. Technically it was flawless, with uncanny unanimity of execution, even in the trickiest rhythmic passages, and a dazzling array of solo turns.

Principal bassoon Stephen Paulson made the familiar opening passage a barely-repressed wail. The brass section was an engine of precision punctuation. The woodwinds fluttered, shrieked and skittered without losing accuracy. In the percussion section, bass drum-timpani outbursts from the principal, Jacob Nissly, and timpanist Edward Stephan, triggered some of the most exciting moments. At times they made it feel like a percussion concerto (and Salonen correctly gave the first solo bow to the Stephan).

With so much technical brilliance, it took a while to identify just what seemed to be missing. It wasn’t quite wild enough. The rhythms fell into place, but they didn’t swagger or drive with total conviction, and outbursts lacked that extra edge. There was a time when a perfectly executed run-through of this demanding score might have been enough. But longtime San Francisco Symphony concertgoers have heard performances, led in recent years by Tilson Thomas, that were more feral, pushing the edge to create great excitement, and an especially riveting performance led by Susanna Mälkki in 2017.

Maybe it was just that this was the first of three performances, and Salonen and the musicians wanted to get things solid before ripping past restraints. We know they are capable of it, given the unbound nature of last week’s traversal of Scriabin, Liszt and Fang Man.

Composer Elizabeth Ogonek © Brittany Hosea-Small 

The program opened with the symphony’s first performance of Ogonek’s Sleep & Unremembrance. Debuted in 2016 by the London Symphony, the 12-minute piece explores a stream-of-consciousness series of brief musical episodes. They were alternately charming, eerie, humorous and wistful, tied together more by inventive and masterful orchestration and zingy harmonies than by an overall formal structure.

Ogonek introduced the piece, and read aloud the touching poem that inspired this work. In ‘While Sleeping’, Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012), a Polish writer who received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, captured in a few lines a string of not-obviously-related memories that flashed through her mind during a two-and-a-half-minute nap when she was close to death. Ogonek’s piece reflected that feeling beautifully, and Salonen and the orchestra gave it its due.

Harvey Steiman

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