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Blomstedt contrasts Nielsen and Schubert in his SFS first program this season

Example of an exchange between snare drum and clarinet involving multiple clarinet registers
Example of an exchange between snare drum and clarinet involving multiple clarinet registers
from IMSLP

This afternoon San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt returned to Davies Symphony Hall to present the first of two programs he has prepared for this season’s annual visit. That program consisted of only two compositions, which contrasted sharply. However, each clearly had its own secure place in his comfort zone.

The first half presented Carl Nielsen’s Opus 57 clarinet concerto with Principal Carey Bell as soloist. Blomstedt chose to perform this with a reduced string section, an entirely sensible decision when one realizes that the rest of the instrumentation consists of only two bassoons, two horns, and a snare drum (along with the solo clarinet). Nielsen is as nuanced in his handling of the bassoons and horns, exploiting unique possibilities for sonorous coloration, as he is in developing the extensive variety of sonorities associated with the different registers of the clarinet. The full spectral diversity of those instruments certainly does not deserve to be overwhelmed by a strong string section, and Blomstedt’s sense of balance this afternoon was impeccable.

Then there is the snare drum. Nielsen composed this concerto in 1928, a little over half a decade after his fifth symphony (Opus 50). That symphony is distinguished for, among other reasons, the cadenza material that Nielsen composed for both snare drum and clarinet. That symphony engages those two instruments in a conversation that is never quite resolved. Thus, it is worth considering that the Opus 57 concerto may amount to a continuation of that conservation, one in which, by the final measures, both instruments seem to come to closure in the softest possible dynamic level.

Between those final bars and the fugal opening (which involves only low strings and bassoon before the clarinet enters) the concerto unfolds in five movements played without interruption. While the thematic material is always clear and accessible, the driving force of this concerto lies in how melodic exposition and development are sharply (if not rudely) punctuated by both clarinet and snare drum, either separately or in what amounts to a mischievous partnership. The clarinet part does not consist entirely of cadenza material, but it probably comes closer to that extreme than the solo line for just about any other concerto. In the midst of that outpouring of notes, the snare drum sometimes tries to interrupt, sometimes tries to follow the thread of conversation, and sometimes tries to disrupt things with arrhythmic outbursts. The whole affair has much of the same affably comic rhetoric that Nielsen explored in the instrumental exchanges of his Opus 43 wind quintet.

Bell’s command of the virtuosic clarinet passages was always spot-on. He clearly seemed to be enjoying himself, sometimes letting a smile or two break through during the orchestral passages. Presumably the snare drum was taken by Principal Percussion Jacob Nissly, and one got the impression that both musicians were well prepared for their exchanges even before Blomstedt arrived to prepare the overall balance and flow of the concerto.

This was only the second SFS performance of this concerto. The first took place in March of 1989 under Blomstedt’s tenure as Music Director with Richard Stoltzman as soloist. However, to the extent to which the music comes off as an intimate conversation among friends (with admittedly lesser contributions from the strings, bassoons, and horns), it seemed appropriate that this time the presentation was more of a “family affair.” If the instrumental lines create a sense of acquaintance, then it helps that the performers are already familiar with each other.

The second half of the program presented Franz Schubert’s D. 944 (“Great”) symphony in C major. Performed with a full string section, doubled winds, and a choir of two horns, two trumpets, and three trombones, the grandeur of this symphony was the dialectical opposition to Nielsen’s intimacy. When I write about this composer, I often like to refer to Robert Schumann’s characterization of “Schubert’s heavenly length,” as I did when Evgeny Kissin performed the D. 850 piano sonata in D major last month. That epithet applies primarily to late works for solo piano chamber music with strings; but, among the symphonies, D. 944 is the one most deserving of the description.

Blomstedt clearly reveled in the expanses of that “heavenly length,” taking every repetition included in the score. Yet he paced his selections of tempo in such a way that one was always aware of the flow of thematic material, rather than the extension of duration. Equally important was his management of gradual crescendo and his general use of dynamics to avoid those repeated measures sounding repetitive. He also controlled those dynamics through a stand-by-stand approach to “division of labor” in the string section. Thus, during particularly repetitive passages the first chair would play one round of iterations and then rest while the second chair took the next round. (Michael Tilson Thomas has used the same tactic in his own performances of this symphony.) The result was an exhilarating account of the entire symphony during which the passage of clock time never seemed to matter very much.

Taking the program as a whole, one could not miss the bold contrast between Nielsen and Schubert; but one had to appreciate Blomstedt’s own boldness in how he handled it.