Julia Fischer and MTT play brilliant Prokofiev and Berlioz with the San Francisco Symphony

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Julia Fischer. Photo Kasskara.

Julia Fischer. Photo Kasskara.

Davies Hall, San Francisco
March 7, 2014

The San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Julia Fischer, violin

Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Opus 19 (1917)
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, Opus 14 (1830)

The San Francisco Symphony is just about off and running for a three week European tour. If last night’s performance of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique is any indication, it will succeed heartily. And those lucky enough to hear Julia Fischer perform the Prokofiev D major concerto (she joins the orchestra mid-tour for Dortmund, Prague and Vienna) will be doubly dazzled.

The meat and potatoes for the tour includes the Mahler Third Symphony, the Fantastique, both MTT specialties, and the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. I did not catch the Mahler, but it was ecstatically reviewed in the Chronicle a week ago. If the orchestra maintains the level of excellence it achieved in recording this symphony a few years ago, it will be a real highlight. And MTT’s lyrical way with Beethoven has been growing on me. There is a fine serenity of line to his way with the Beethoven Seventh. The orchestra’s reputation in Europe, already high, will surely be confirmed during the tour.

This week in San Francisco has been a feast for violin lovers. Coming away from Vilde Frang’s Heifetz-like debut with the Prokofiev Second and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, I did not suppose I could be further dazzled, yet Julia Fischer managed just that. At 31, Munich based Fischer is a multi-faceted and mature musician with a more fully established career. She also performs publicly as a pianist. Indeed, a DVD is available from Bremen where she plays both the Grieg Piano Concerto and the Saint-Saens B minor violin concerto together in one concert!

The young woman who emerged from the wings was all business, with her hair pulled back in a severe chignon and her brow furrowed in earnestness. And she may have miscalculated with her dress. It seemed unflatteringly draped and resembled too much a lavender rayon nightgown, matching no color to be found onstage or in the hall. But from the first note, there was no question that one was in the presence of one of the world’s great violinists.

The Prokofiev First Violin Concerto comes from that period, just after the Russian revolution, when composers may have felt slightly embarrassed by their lyrical tendencies. It sings out as less “whistle-worthy” than the more popular G Minor, but there is still quiet romance to be found in the piece, much of it relying on beauty of tone and an ability to blend with the orchestra. Like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev found a way to compose a concerto without having orchestra and soloist duplicate each other’s passages and beat each other over the head with them. Only in the finale do you find a real tutti where soloist and orchestra mirror each other. Elsewhere, the piece is a kaleidoscope of subtle effects, ranging second for second from the motoric to the lyrical and back again. Though an early work, it already carries within it all the original Prokofiev hallmarks, such as using the tuba to lead the basses in moments of warm support down below. Prokofiev tried hard to hide the fact—but he was really as romantic a composer as Brahms! Julia Fischer’s sonority was ravishing in the quieter moments, richer than Vilde Frang’s. But like Frang, she managed the more aggressive moments without the construction crew sanding noises which pass so often for violin passion.

The program was short, so for an encore, Fischer announced the Hindemith G minor Sonata’s last movement. This turned out to be an exercise in perpetual motion, effortlessly carried off with considerable power and, to my prejudicial delight, without scraping! Audience applause, which had been a slow swell after the introverted Prokofiev came to its quiet halt, developed into a sunami following the Hindemith. 2500 people screaming full tilt certainly made up for any tentative response a few moments earlier.

It would be hard to equal the effect of all this with a piece of music from 1830, but MTT managed to find considerable and growing excitement in the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. His recording of the piece is well known and popular. I won’t go out on a limb and suggest there was anything too new in his approach this time, but it would not really serve the music well to engage in Mahlerian thematic distension. It was an appropriate and colorful performance. As it usually is, the slow movement turned out to be an exercise in static patience. I very much doubt this movement did much to persuade Harriet Smithson to marry Berlioz. It seems to depict not just the shepherd’s loneliness, which it does very effectively, but the boredom of loneliness. The degree of audience rustling and seat squeaking which accompanied it played to my point…

But the March to the Scaffold and the Witches’ Sabbath were very exciting and ultimately brought down the house. I only regret that a favorite moment, where the guillotine severs the composer’s neck with a mighty chop, was not followed by a clearly audible plop of the head into the basket. But sufficient to the day is the ghoulishness thereof….

Oddly, the hall was not completely filled, even though, and perhaps because of, the first really fine weather we have had in a long time. One rainy Friday a few weeks ago, Davies seemed filled with date-night antics. Everywhere you looked, couples were canoodling in the aisles. That was for Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. This time, though, the audience seemed older and more conservative—or was it merely unsteady? Doing my usual intermission promenade through the hall I was not certain how to react.

There is something slightly disturbing about being ogled lecherously by women with canes!

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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