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Davies Symphony Hall hosts two highly impressive debut performances

Conductor Jaap van Zweden
Conductor Jaap van Zweden
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

At last night’s concert by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, both the conductor and the soloist were giving debut performances. The latter was the Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, performing Jean Sibelius’ Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor, composed in 1904. She was led by her compatriot Jaap van Zweden, currently Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. His debut had originally been scheduled for October of 2012 but had to be rescheduled for personal matters. The occasion was definitely worth the wait.

Lamsma’s concerto performance was the centerpiece of a conventional overture-concerto-symphony program. However, there was nothing conventional about van Zweden’s interpretations, beginning with his opening selection of the overture Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed for his K. 384 opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (the abduction from the seraglio), first performed in 1782 in Vienna, the first of his operas to be performed after Mozart moved there.

The overture is a lighthearted introduction to the hijinks of low comedy played out by stereotyped characters in the setting of a Turkish palace. The music is in ternary form, an energetic brio with lots of Turkish “sound effects” coming from the percussion in the outer sections, sandwiching a “preview” of the first tenor aria. In the score for the full opera, the repeat of the opening section segues smoothly into that aria; but Mozart composed a separate coda for concert performances, which seems to have been heavily inspired by his symphonic compositions and is more than a little playful in making the audience wait for the final cadence.

Last night van Zweden led an appropriately downsized string section (as well as a smaller bass drum in the percussion section). His sense of balance allowed for full appreciation of all the details of Mozart’s counterpoint, as well as the composer’s sharp ear for the interplay of sonorities across string, wind, and brass sections. The timpani may have been a bit enthusiastic in the opening measures, but Alex Orfaly quickly adjusted his dynamics to fit in with the entire ensemble. While van Zweden took the podium with a rather stern demeanor, he had no trouble conveying every nuance of the high spirits Mozart had intended for this overture.

For the concerto portion of the program, Lamsma has been van Zweden’s protégé and has performed with him frequently. One got the impression that they had collaborated closely on the interpretation of Sibelius’ concerto, and the result was nothing less than stunning. This was particularly the case in the opening movement, in which Sibelius seems to have gone to great lengths to distance himself from all past conventions of concerto form. This is not so much a dialogue between soloist and ensemble as it is an extended series of “monologue” solos with occasional punctuations from the orchestra. It is almost as if the orchestra steps in with thematic material only when the violinist needs a rest.

Listening to Lamsma jump through all of the demanding hoops that Sibelius had contrived, I found myself thinking less of a violin virtuoso and more of one of those pre-literate bardic singers, spinning out a heroic tale of epic proportions. One of Sibelius’ earliest orchestra compositions was his Opus 9 “En Saga,” whose first version was completed in 1892. However, while Opus 9 may have been written to evoke an ancient tale, the first movement of the Opus 47 may be taken as a shift of attention to the telling of that tale. Those orchestral punctuations are “audience reactions” to the bard’s account, while the more extended passages amount to a “group sing” while the bard refreshes himself with some mead.

The remaining two movements of the concerto are far more conventional in structure. Yet that rhetoric of the urgency of immediate engagement between bard and audience spilled over to the interpretation Lamsma and van Zweden can conceived for the rest of the concerto. Thus, by the time they had both come to the coda of the final movement, there was an edge-of-the-seat excitement that pervaded the execution, no matter how familiar any listener may have been with the score. There was particular sensitivity to Sibelius’ rhetorical approach to an abrupt ending, demonstrated so powerfully last month when Osmo Vänskä conducted the Opus 104 (sixth) symphony and realized just as powerfully last night to conclude Opus 47.

The intermission was followed by van Zweden’s symphony selection, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 36 in F minor (the fourth), composed in 1877. This symphony presents Tchaikovsky’s dramatism at its most grandiose. It begins with a fate-laden fanfare that is almost as notorious as the opening measures of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 67 symphony in C minor (the fifth) and returns to interrupt the manic outpouring of the final movement with the same foreboding that interrupted the orgiastic revelries of Belshazzar’s Feast in the Book of Daniel.

It goes without saying that this symphony provides all too many temptations for the conductor to go overboard. Fortunately, van Zweden resisted all of them. This is not to say that he held back his resources when a strong impact was of the essence. However, he knew how to keep those resources under the control necessary to build up to each significant moment of impact, rather than just letting Tchaikovsky’s music play out as “one damned thing after another” (with apologies to Winston Churchill). The result was a stimulating account of an all-too-familiar symphony, which was anything but all-too-familiar.