Salonen’s majestic Bruckner Symphony No.4 brings high notes to turbulent times in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States R. Schumann, Bruckner: Yefim Bronfman (piano), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 23.6.2024. (HS)

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony © Stefan Cohen

R. Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor
Bruckner – Symphony No.4 in E-flat major, ‘Romantic’

I missed conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performances of Bruckner’s Symphony No.6 last season, the only Bruckner he has conducted during his two years as music director of the San Francisco Symphony. I was eager to hear how things might fare with the composer’s Symphony No.4 at a time when the future of the orchestra has become a hot topic of conversation.

In March, Salonen announced that he will not continue as music director after his contract ends in June 2025. His statement said that he and the board do not agree on the orchestra’s plans, and a bristly debate has opened among insiders and ordinary concertgoers over just what is happening. A statement from the musicians called for the board of governors to reverse course, and there has been no indication that the board has even begun a search for a replacement.

Audiences have been enthusiastically supportive as Salonen has conducted the orchestra’s June performances. At some concerts, banners have urged him to stay. Whenever he picks up a microphone, as he did before the Bruckner on Sunday, he gets a rousing response. He spoke to salute several longtime musicians (and the stage manager) who are retiring after the June concerts. Their decades of work have ‘contributed to the DNA of what makes this orchestra what it is’, he said, adding, ‘In that way they live on for as long as this orchestra exists’.

In the performance that followed, Salonen tempered his propensity toward rigorous adherence to the score with a welcome willingness to nudge tempos in search of extra colors and flexible phrasing in what can come off as a repetitious work. The musicians, for their part, seemed primed to react to every flick of the baton. It was a revelatory reading, a glorious, majestic combination of precision and a sort of organic swelling and swerving that brought the score to life.

Bruckner’s symphonies often test my patience at times. Unlike Mahler, with whom he is often compared because their symphonies are similarly long, Bruckner resisted tweaking details in the recurring phrases that pepper his symphonies. The fourth time intoning the same brass hymn can get my eyes rolling.

Salonen subtly adjusted dynamics whenever a repetition came around. He allowed tempos to relax a bit leading into and out of these mileposts on the long journey that Bruckner symphonies are. At every turn, he chose an ideal pace, one that allowed the sonics to bloom without any sense of dragging. The result was a fresh, ear-caressing interpretation.

Bruckner revised the score at least seven times between the symphony’s debut in 1874 and the final version in 1888. Salonen chose the 1880 version (in an edition published in 1953), in which the composer discarded his original rapid-fire Scherzo in favor of a picturesque piece that gives the horn section a chance to create one of music’s better tally-ho moments. It was a good choice, in large part because the horn section was in great form.

The brass, expanded to eight in addition to six horns, produced superb sound and clarity, modifying textures and dynamics just enough to bring freshness to each repetition of their fanfares, hymns and, yes, galloping hunt music. For his part, visiting hornist Jeffrey Fair (principal horn of the Seattle Symphony) intoned the soft opening call with precision and gorgeous tone, and handled the many returns of that theme with distinctiveness.

Salonen was especially adept in bringing out contrasts, which abound in this symphony. The soft opening, the solo horn against a barely audible tremolo in the strings, gradually expanded into a broad statement that was quickly followed by the sighs of a lighter, dancelike section. Likewise, the bouncy hunt music yielded nicely to a gentle ländler in the Scherzo. These shifts between power and tenderness, between urgency and hesitance, were critical in bringing depth and expression to the proceedings.

Among the solos, principal flutist Yubeen Kim, associate principal clarinetist Matthew Griffith and associate principal oboist James Button made the most of their moments in the spotlight. The Finale, another movement that Bruckner refashioned to a significant extent, kept rising to reverberant climaxes, the last pages reaching a sublime level.

To open the concert, pianist Yefim Bronfman downplayed any showoff fireworks and delivered a deft and eloquent performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in E-flat. The give-and-take between orchestra and soloist was a delight. A quick pace and excellent communication with Salonen kept it all sprightly, even the Intermezzo which made a nice breather between the outer movements.

Harvey Steiman

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