Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Spanish maestro Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducted the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) for the first time since 1985. Frühbeck was born on September 15, 1933, meaning that he celebrated his 80th birthday about five months ago. His elegant grey hair has given way to an entirely bald pate, and he almost looks as if he stepped out of an etching by Francisco Goya. However, the broad sweeping gestures of his baton work reflect a highly-informed intensity; and it was clear that the SFS musicians were attentive to every nuance he elicited from them.
The two halves of his program were divided neatly between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More importantly, however, the eighteenth century was represented by two relatively early compositions by Joseph Haydn, both of which were clearly composed for the reduced resources of a chamber orchestra. On the other hand the second half consisted only of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic shite Scheherazade. As my orchestration professor liked to say, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the book on orchestration. This was literal truth; and Principles of Orchestration is as valuable a resource today as it was when in was published (posthumously) in 1912. It also provides grounds for a comprehensive understanding of why Rimsky-Korsakov could be so good at everything-but-the-kitchen-sink instrumentation.
The Haydn selections, the Hoboken I/6 symphony in D major and the Hoboken VIIb/1 in C major, were both composed in the earliest years of his service as kapellmeister to Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy, the time before the construction of the palace at Eszterháza, which came to be known as the “Hungarian Versailles.” The symphony was the first of a morning-noon-evening series of three; and its opening measures depict the dawn in a manner that the much older Haydn would return to when working on his Hoboken XXI/2 oratorio The Creation. Each of the three symphonies has so many passages for solo instrument that it is practically a concerto grosso; and Frühbeck’s decision to work with a reduced string section helped to focus listener attention on the many different forms of interplay between solo and ensemble voices. Indeed, Haydn’s approach to solo work demonstrates that, even this early in his career, he was already exploring ways to push the envelope. The extended solo for bass (Principal Scott Pingel) was a particularly amusing case in point, offsetting the more elegant solos for violin (Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman) and a lovely duo passage for viola (Principal Jonathan Vinocour) and cello (Principal Michael Grebanier). It is also worth observing that the triadic opening Allegro theme allows both brass and winds to have their say with it.
The soloist for the “real” concerto of the evening was Alisa Weilerstein. The manuscript was lost for over 200 years and was only discovered in 1961. Before then the only Haydn cello concerto to receive regular concert performances was Hoboken VIIb/2 in D major. While the D major concerto has the sort of refinement that would probably have appealed to Prince Nikolaus and his companions at court, the C major concerto seems to have been written for the delight of a cello player (specifically, Joseph Franz Weigl in the Prince’s orchestra).
Weilerstein clearly took great pleasure in emphasizing the sharply contrasting shifts across the concerto’s thematic material, a rather flamboyant rhetorical style that probably appealed to Weigl just as much. Her chemistry with Frühbeck could not have been better, each always aware of where the other was going and both equally committed to making the performance succeed as a joint effort. The result was a first half of the program that captured the making of music at its most intimate, even in the far-from-intimate setting of Davies.
On the other hand Davies was built for the full-throttle pull-out-all-the-stops instrumental resources of Scheherazade. It was clear that Frühbeck wanted to fill every corner of the space with resonances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s sonorities. He succeeded admirably, always maintaining just the right balance over the diversity of all of those sonorities. In the midst of all this splendor, however, there was still the intimate storytelling voice of Scheherazade herself as represented in the recurring cadenza played by Tichman as the “glue” to bind the episodic accounts of those tales from One Thousand and One Nights.
The fact is that, given the scope of the score, Rimsky-Korsakov’s thematic vocabulary is a bit limited. Under Frühbeck’s direction, however, there was never any sense of it being repetitive. Through highly specific nuances in phrasing, clear strategies for controlling the overall flow through judicious tempo decisions, and, above all, the ability to control dynamics in both broad strokes and meticulous flicks of detail, themes that might have been all-too-familiar passed by the listener in a variety of different guises, each time throwing a different light on the story Scheherazade happened to be relating at the time.
The overall result was that, for all of the exciting bombast and spectacle, Frühbeck’s approach to Scheherazade recalled much of that same attentive intimacy that he had brought to his interpretations of Haydn.