Davies Hall, San Francisco
October 19, 2016
The San Francisco Symphony
Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor
Alisa Weilerstein, cello
Mozart — Symphony No. 29 in A major, K.201 (1774)
Schumann — Cello Concerto in A minor, Opus 129 (1850)
Dvořák — Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Opus 70 (1885)
Pablo Heras-Casado is a born conductor — and has the makings of a great one. You might be forgiven for thinking the two notions the same, but they’re not. Some of our greatest were actually poker-faced and rather bad at beating time — even physically and facially unsuited — and with impossible personalities. Richard Strauss on the podium looked like he missed his card game. Koussevitsky’s beat was so wobbly, Boston Symphony players learned to cue-in when his baton passed the third vest button. George Szell didn’t know how to indicate a pizzicato intelligibly and was so bad at complex rhythms, he only barely made it through Ein Heldenleben once in his many decades in Cleveland.
Szell was effective in a different way — but definitely not born to show emotion. He simply used coke-bottle eyes to wither players into compliance. One musician learned he could avoid this misery by letting glasses slide down his nose, until the horn rims hid Szell’s face. He got away with it for one rehearsal. Szell called him into the office, handed him a piece of paper and said “Here is the address of my optometrist. Get your glasses adjusted! I need to see your eyes.” His nickname, unsurprisingly, according to the very Protestant Cleveland harpist, was “Shtickfort!” Decades later, many members of that orchestra still wish quite sincerely Szell had been taken out and shot. Yet these were all great conductors…
Then you have the born ones, like Pablo Heras-Casado, who seems to levitate with the music itself and lead with his whole body. I can’t vouch for personality, though the orchestra was so reluctant to let him go at concert’s end, he had to wave goodbye. What strikes one about Heras-Casado is that every part of his face and body moves with the music and reflects the rise and fall of its tension. He bounds onstage looking like a springy, benevolent werewolf, wearing shiny black vulpine shoes and a tight tunic-suit. He conducts ambidextrously — without baton. Sometimes he herds players into the center with both arms, as if arranging a billiard table. Sometimes he is on tiptoes. Sometimes he crouches. He’s everywhere. Wherever the cue is onstage, his closest arm goes for it. It’s remarkably effective. Heras-Casado uses his face, too, like a natural sound-mirror. Fortunately, his expressions are not idiotic! By contrast, the Boston Symphony is in good hands these days, but some members of the audience — and perhaps the orchestra — have trouble dealing with the Andris Nelsons’ tendency to look like a six-year-old on Christmas morning.
But this is all fluff, in a way. What matters is the music. Demeanor becomes irrelevant at that point. And technique? Karajan said you could tie one arm behind his back — and the orchestra would get the beat. He once recorded an opera lying on a stretcher. So how did this concert sound?
Magnificent, is the answer. Mozart’s early Symphony No. 29 was played like the purring gem it is, soft A-major chords leaning into each other for a warm embrace. Thirty years ago you might have heard it with eighty players onstage. But at half-strength I was grateful for all the lovely rounded corners and spirit.
I was a little less happy with Alisa Weilerstein, who entered stage left hauling a seriously gold dress with a heavy train. I couldn’t help wondering if Trump Tower was missing a curtain panel somewhere. But that isn’t the criticism. Weilerstein presents herself in a state of permanent facial transport, long hair hiding half her face, and throws herself body and soul into the cello. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone attack the instrument with such energy. The Schumann Concerto sprang to life this way. For a late work, it has surprisingly lame melodies, but does produce lovely sentiment in the slow movement and a galvanizing sense of bounce in the finale–especially in the electric hands of Pablo Heras-Casado. Trouble is, Weilerstein’s cello tone is extremely rough and brusque — more sandpaper than velvet. It scrapes and growls endlessly…and borders on ugly. My prejudice, perhaps, but I found myself wondering what Christian Poltéra would have sounded like — all elision and smooth beauty.
No such worries in the Dvořák Seventh Symphony. It was electrifying from beginning to end. I’ve heard Bernstein and Barbirolli do it live — and just about every conductor before or since record the piece. I wish I could have this performance by Heras-Casado as I experienced it. The key to the symphony — and to a great deal of Dvořák — is hard, distinct powerful timpani. From beginning to end, it was gunshots of excitement. Underneath its well-behaved Brahmsian exterior lies Dvořák’s irrepressible romantic impulse to dance. And dancing of this sort requires drums! I’ve heard performances which stress the creepy-crawleys of the opening and wind up grey and turgid. And I’ve experienced the efficiency expert approach which leaves everyone cold on the dancefloor — I’m one of the few who dislikes Szell in this piece. And I’m grateful that Pierre Boulez never took it under his wing — imagine the horror! But Heras-Casado was fast, flexible enough to be romantic with his winds — insightful with small touches (like the tiny slither with which he ended the slow movement) — electrifying in the finale’s marchlike syncopations — and utterly grand in peroration, where he pounded home wave after wave of some of the most levitating timpani rolls I’ve ever heard. The brass and percussion of this orchestra are spectacular, greatly assisted by the wonderful focus of the Davies Hall stage. Congratulations, by the way, to the orchestra’s new timpanist, Ed Stephan and first trombone, Tim Higgins! They are surely quite responsible for how well things went!
I’ve known the San Francisco Symphony for decades now and never felt the orchestra was just marking time. I’m on the wrong side of the footlights to know for certain. But the Symphony gives every external sign of being a joyous place to work. The day will come, of course, when one speculates who will ultimately replace Michael Tilson Thomas. There will surely be a hunger for different repertoire. MTT sticks to Mahler, Copland and the Russians. He’d never do a symphony by Elgar or Vaughan Williams (odd in someone who once led the London Symphony) or anything romantically French, like D’Indy, or anything heavily Teutonic, like Wagner or Reger…There’s lots of energy and sparkle in MTT — but little genuine introspection. Perhaps someone like Pablo Heras-Casado will be waiting in the wings one day. If you pronounce “Heras-Casado” with a silent “H”, his name translates as Mr. “You-got-married”. A few more programs this exciting and he’d better marry us!