Davies Hall, San Francisco
The San Francisco Symphony
Friday, February 14, 2014
Jaap van Zweden – conductor
Simone Lamsma – violin
Mozart – Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio, K.384 (1782)
Sibelius – Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47 (1904)
Tchaikovsky—Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36 (1877)
I am almost at a loss to describe the excitement I experienced Friday evening at the San Francisco Symphony.
This reviewer has been attending symphony concerts with adult ears since 1962, but I have seldom heard anything so white hot as the conducting debut of Jaap Van Zweden with our orchestra. Only some of Leonard Bernstein’s New York performances in the early days would have matched it for excitement. And I heard just about all of them. I was present, too, at Daniel Barenboim’s debut week of concerts with the New York Philharmonic in 1971, conducting the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. It didn’t hold a candle to Friday’s performance.
The San Francisco Symphony has a history of besting the home orchestras of its guest conductors. I recall a Rite of Spring with Charles Dutoit in the 1980s, which so put his recently recorded Montreal Symphony performance in the shade, that I returned the CD. This morning, I streamed van Zweden’s 2008 live CD of the Tchaikovsky with the Dallas Symphony and had the same reaction: a very pale reflection of his talents. If only he had recorded it with us!
San Francisco, of course, has the benefit of Davies Hall, which is capable both of remarkable decibel power above the stave and incredibly rich bass for brass instruments, percussion and basses. Many modern halls don’t do too well with the latter, including, apparently, Meyerson Hall in Dallas, at least judging from recordings. Ours is not just a loud hall, but a powerful one.
But you can’t shower praise on a concert hall for an individual performance and believe you have explained it. Far more important are the intangibles of electricity among players and conductor – and not to be disparaged – the breathless expectation of 2500 listeners. In this instance the house was packed, but there was a special “date night” quality to the audience. Everyone seemed 24 years old. The full moon was out. City Hall rotunda was bathed in a kaleidoscope of colors. And everywhere you looked, couples were intertwined, necking in the corridors, blocking the stairs, nuzzling each other on benches and, if the swooning pair next to me were any indication, wriggling all over each other during the music. That is what good programming will do for you! I’ve frankly never seen anything like it.
Into this atmosphere strode Jaap van Zweden, a sturdy artillery shell of a man with a bullet head, a black tunic, and a warm smile belying his slightly Mephistophelian appearance. From the first silvery moment of “Turkish” percussion in the Mozart overture, it was clear this was going to be an electrifying evening – silky, utterly precise, explosive, yet warm. The line of power from a conductor to an orchestra is an odd thing. A few weeks ago Pinchas Zukerman stood in front of the Royal Philharmonic, gesticulating like a benevolent head waiter – and getting about as much response as you would see from an orchestra playing with its food and cutlery. In contrast, van Zweden stood there literally vibrating with suppressed energy, his eyes boring holes in the orchestra. Every downbeat seemed to bring an immediate surge of power, and every secondary wriggle down his arm a new moment of grace. This was fast conducting, with bite, but not foreshortened in that disheartening way which makes one think “Oh, another ‘clarity guy’.” The Abduction from the Seraglio overture was in inspired debut choice. You could assess within seconds that the evening would be about both beauty and power.
And so it was. But the audience was hardly prepared for the stunningly glamorous appearance of Simone Lamsma in a bare-armed orange dress, redolent of the 1940s. Adjusting for her long blonde hair, one would say she resembled Kristen Stewart in a vampire movie. And as she swayed to Sibelius’s orchestral tuttis, head thrown back with a mesmerized expression on her face, lips pursed forwards in a kiss, you’d swear she had just been ecstatically bitten by a creature of the night.
All this would be so much eye-play, if Lamsma were not a fine violinist and if van Zweden, himself a violin prodigy, were not on top of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Our local reviewer for the Chronicle was unimpressed with her medium sized tone and found her intonation wanting. I heard none of this. The performance was flawless and moving. The Sibelius Concerto is an odd duck, beginning pianissimo and seeming less committed to full interaction between soloist and orchestra than most of the concerto literature. It is almost as though violin and orchestra are giving different speeches and occasionally commenting on each other’s words. The beginning was so near-silent, with the whole audience leaning forward in expectation, that I was reminded of what trouble Michael Tilson Thomas has in getting the orchestra to play quietly. In the past, I tended to blame the hall. Now I blame him! The performance revealed other glories. Van Zweden has a way with low brass which always gives purring support to what lies above. As a result, orchestral comment from the Sibelius was explosive, as is its wont, but without ever sounding blatty.
The Tchaikovsky Symphony, which followed intermission, revealed the same qualities. The brass opening was incredibly loud and gripping, yet without that public address system edge which can be off-putting. And from the outset, it was clear that Alex Orfaly, our assistant principal timpanist, decked out in his signature red pocket handkerchief, was more than red hot. The opening thwacks in the fate motif were so powerful, that the amorous couple seated next to me, seriously occupied with chewing on various portions of each others extremities, surely left tooth-marks!
As the Tchaikovsky proceeded, it became clear that van Zweden is a conductor of powerful inflection with his use of dynamics. Nothing was left alone just to roll along dully until the next loud patch. Well-selected moments, instead, would leap out at the audience excitingly and then vanish away. This was far more evident here than on van Zweden’s Dallas recording, and it surely reflects confidence and daring. Even the great climaxes had this kaleidoscopic quality, with the timpani and brasses coming and going in unexpected ways. I have never heard the symphony sound so subtle and so commanding at the same time.
There is a limitation to writing about sound. After a while adjective and adverbs run out of steam, where the music does not. So I shall simply say, you should have been there. The last movement’s bass drum was so powerful that the Davies Hall floor shook, despite being constructed of concrete rather than wood. And with each bass drum explosion, the young woman seated next to me seemed to jump a foot in surprise. When the first one occurred, her companion had been busy leaning over and kissing her hand – and nearly got whacked in the nose!
I was delighted, too, to witness the lasting effect of the performance on the audience. By the time it exits halfway up the aisle, one usually notices to one’s dismay that patron conversations are about anything but the music. This time, along the corridors and out into the street, it was remarkable to witness how many of the listeners, young and old, were pursing their lips and blowing out their cheeks, as if playing trombones and reliving Tchaikovsky’s coda. The ones that weren’t necking, that is!
But that is what it is supposed to be like with music. As we stood up, I turned to the wriggly couple and said, “Well, that certainly wasn’t drive time easy listening!”
“Incredible,” they replied.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” I added.
And I meant it.