The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Friday, October 4, 2013
Lully – Overture and Passacaille, from Armide (1686)
Adès – Three Studies from Couperin (2006)
Stravinsky – Violin Concerto (1931)
Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Opus 56, Scottish (1842)
Pablo Heras-Casado – conductor
Leila Josefowicz – violin
In the rather too large historical canon of unnecessary musical deaths, I’ve always been sorry that Jean-Baptiste Lully stabbed himself in the foot with his conducting staff during a concert. He was at the height of his powers, and the resulting infection killed him. Lully’s music conveys an innate danceable grace that most Baroque music lacks — and a very human sense of sentiment — a sweet nostalgia rather like Mendelssohn’s, in fact. Pablo Heras-Casado’s program last Friday at the SFS was deliberately laid out as a neoclassic feast. Each piece, you might say, had one foot in the past and was a tribute to it. It made for a wonderful evening.
Sometimes what you love sneaks up on you. I never realized, before listening to Lully, that what bothered me about most baroque music was its excessive linearity. But Lully’s music walks the way people do, slightly off kilter. It has hips. Indeed, it swings! Lully was the king of the hemiola in his day. For those of you on the turnip truck, this is a way of saying Lully reaches for a cadence with the lazy syncopated ease of a pendulum… The music dips and bows its way to phrase endings with gorgeous trills, all the while teasing the listener with a touch of human sadness or regret. It seemed touched by genius on Friday.
This was my first opportunity to observe Pablo Heras-Casado. He emerged from the wings a slim young fellow with a large furry head, rather like a not quite fully grown wolf, with the sort of energy that goes in all directions and spells trouble for its owner! But no trouble was spelled here, just excitement. Heras-Casado, conducting without baton, proved to be an utterly natural conductor, surfing the music with his body and simply extending a palm towards what he wanted. The result was supple, even if the SFS sounded for a moment or two not quite sure of itself in music written this early.
Another wonderful surprise was Heras-Casado’s choice of the Adès tribute to Couperin, who was a Lully contemporary and rival. I must confess that, ever since I heard an unidentified piece by Adès some years ago, I have avoided his music. I fully expected something sounding like a shaken can of nails — and couldn’t have been more wrong! This might as well have been Britten or Tippett composing to a royal commission. The sonority was almost Elgarian, the mood danceable, and the invention clever but respectful. Even the orchestral layout was symmetry itself, with two basses in each corner and four cellos on each side of the other strings. Adès has found a way of spicing what he does that mimics the harpsichord invention inherent in Couperin, without excessively clashing with it. This is not one of those modern pieces which starts out recognizable and then turns into something else. Instead, we get a friskier Britten or Stravinsky in terms of invention, framed by completely tonal cadences as tasteful and satisfying as Couperin’s own — and unusual trills everywhere. If there was ever any doubt about Adès in one’s mind, a piece like this makes up for it. It should become as mainstream as Brahms. The composer was present in the hall and took his bows to shouts of delight.
Friday was also my first opportunity to hear Leila Josefowicz perform live, in this instance playing the Stravinsky violin concerto. The audience gasped as she bounced glamorously onstage in wedgies under a yellow Hollywood gown and satin sash. With her blonde hair in a bun and fully made up, she looked like Ginger Rogers turned note-killer. She proceeded to dig into the concerto for all it was worth, a look of narrowed-brow and squinty-eyed mischief on her face. As the concerto proceeded, I was struck by how perfectly Josefowicz captured its snarky mood and reveled in the evil-sounding slithers to be found in it everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a performance of this concerto so direct and joyous. Heras-Casado was with her all the way, and it was fun to see them exchanging expressions of mock attack and counterfeit evil. Ginger and the Wolf…
There is something utterly timeless about Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony, which followed intermission, a dreamy far away and long ago quality that is the essence of the piece. And it is remarkable how Scottish its melodies sound, without in any way being folk tunes. They seem to dance in place with that “Scottish snap” and move with the “Scottish leap” that we all intuitively recognize as the essence of Scotland. I heard a Berlin Philharmonic performance of this with Heras-Casado from earlier in the season, and the simplest description of it would be “big and soft.” In Davies Hall, though, I encountered a bit more grit, as if the memory of Blomstedt’s way with the music were still au courant. It came out sounding like Charles Munch’s still unrivaled Boston Symphony recording, with our SFS timpanist cloning the amazingly violent and hard-stick timpani style that Munch favored.
As a result, the storm at the end of the first movement seemed stormier than usual, the Scherzo whipped you along, and the declamations in the slow movement were big and emphatic. At the close, the great anthem was both powerful and majestic. But behind this power were to be found the beautiful soft landings of Mendelssohn’s cadences. I confess to being besotted with Mendelssohn’s music in a way that is uncommon today. Perhaps he was not neurotic enough to satisfy modern quests and uncertainties. And perhaps, too, there is no celestial heaven. But if there is, an orchestra will surely be found there performing cushioned Mendelssohnian cadences in A Major.
Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the San Fransisco Orchestra through October 12. He will come to New York to conduct The Orchestra of St Luke’s at Carnegie Hall October 28, and Rigoletto at the Met from November 11.