The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, September 8, 2012
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Pinchas Zukerman, violin
Wagner – Overture to Tannhauser (1845)
Bruch – Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Opus 26 (1866)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64, (1888)
There is always something a little peculiar about opening week at the San Francisco Symphony. Audiences have been away for the summer and are distractible. The orchestra may sound a bit less used to itself than usual. Sunlight in the lobby is still too bright for anyone to settle down. And programming commonly amounts either to a Gala smorgasbord or a visit to Denny’s, but seldom manages subtlety for musical gourmets. No different this year, but with a few wacky touches from the peanut gallery — about which more in a moment.
Additionally, MTT has been on tour with the London Symphony, so Semyon Bychkov opened the first two weeks of the season here. I missed his more substantive program the following week, which contained the grim Eleventh Symphony (Year 1905) of Shostakovich, but caught the goulash and potatoes of Wagner/Bruch/Tchaikovsky under his baton. (Standing in Red Square with Shostakovich to be mowed down at dawn by the Czar’s troops would not have been exactly first-week-festive!)
Everyone knows the Tannhauser Overture, but it struck me on Saturday that I hadn’t actually heard it live in decades. It contains a serious pitfall for performers — if the string accompaniment figurations to the main chorale are played too loudly, it sounds as though Wagner is trying to start up a Mercedes in third gear and lurch down the driveway! Bychkov avoided this at all costs, in a beautiful and flowing performance. I do note, somewhat cynically, that I know of no composer who ever tried to use that accompaniment pattern again! The only real interpretive possibility the overture offers beyond this is the french horn apotheosis in the coda. Bychkov managed it nobly, with just the right broadening and concentration on the harmonic suspensions.
Max Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto is deservedly beloved. The orchestration Bruch employs is soft and more cushiony than Brahms would use in his own concerto a decade later. Because of its simpler humanity, I’ve always felt the concerto flows better and is a better piece. And the Scottish Fantasy, even better still… Heresy, I know! But one does at times seem with Brahms to get stuck in the oatmeal. Not here. Pinchas Zukerman was in good form with his darkish coffee bean tone, and was warmly received. It does strike one, though, that when famous violinists get to a certain age, the distractions of life and fame are greater than when young, and there is a tendency to practice less. Had I been wearing calipers in my ears, I might have thought Zuckerman just fractionally less precise than in times past — but it would be a churlish judgment of no great importance to the beauty of what was heard. In any case, I understand the distraction: I always envied Zuckerman his marriage (now concluded) to actress Tuesday Weld, who was hard to ignore as quite the “young thing” in Elvis movies gone by. I have no doubt she stimulated many — but not to practice the violin!
After intermission, I gave in to a disobedient streak and moved up to the terrace directly overlooking the orchestra, so I could observe Semyon Bychkov more carefully in the Tchaikovsky Symphony. I found myself sitting next to two tiny Japanese ladies with garlic breath that would flatten an elephant a forty paces, and just behind a hip young woman with a bad case of the giggles and a marijuana forest tattooed on her shoulder. As Bychkov got fully involved with the Tchaikovsky, I became aware of how profoundly physical his conducting is. It is characteristically Russian, but without the dark brooding quality of Gergiev, substituting instead a rich but more lightly flowing sense of how a phrase should end. Indeed, Bychkov’s claim to fame may be his ability to find something in the second half of any phrase. He manages this way to be an original conductor within what otherwise would seem to be very normal bounds of psychology, tempo, weight and balance.
Beyond this, I was grateful for a Tchaikovsky Fifth that managed both power and grace. The first brass and timpani tutti in the symphony always gets the audience’s immediate attention. It sounds like a load of planks being dropped off the back of a truck: one of many features in the piece which could be considered a bit too earthy… But it was all second nature to Bychkov, and the waltz melody which soon followed was both moving and danceable.
It is a good thing that the symphony is loud. Bychkov has an expressive face, with large and nearly lurid features which he works up at times to a frenzy. In more passionate moments, this can distort his face alarmingly, making him seem like a human cubist, with eyes bulging and his lips coming out of the side of his cheek. Beyond this, Bychkov’s manner is very “central European”, and as the music increases in flavor, you half expect him to lean over and hand a bowl of steaming borscht to the principal desk players, like a waiter in Ninotchka!
All of this heartiness was simply too much for the tattooed girl in front of me. Every time Bychkov leaned her way, she burst out in hopeless hysterics, fortunately not too audible, which soon spread to her boyfriend and elicited the garlicky disapproval of the Japanese ladies. In the midst of all this, I made the mistake of jerking my head in the direction of the timpani, just before they came in. Everyone in our gallery, for some reason, followed suit and turned his head after mine. This gave me the irreverent idea to do it deliberately again. So for the next forty minutes, I guiltily admit, our gallery looked like the Forest Hills tennis match in Strangers on a Train — every head following mine in lockstep as I leaned forward and jerked my neck violently in the direction of every cue I could anticipate. Only missing in the stands was the motionless face of the murderer — though I’m sure the Japanese ladies would by now have been willing to substitute for him!
The ovation was massive and happy.
But, as many have noted, nothing is ever quite normal in San Francisco. That was certainly true opening week this year. Welcome to the season!