Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), gave the first of four concerts in which he led a reduced chamber orchestra of SFS musicians either from his Concertmaster’s chair or front-and-center acting as soloist. The first three selections were for reduced string ensemble, composed, respectively, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn, and Benjamin Britten. The evening then concluded with an arrangement by violinist Jeremy Cohen of the music of Astor Piazzolla.
The opening Mozart selection was the K. 138 divertimento in F major, the third of a set of three that Mozart composed in Salzburg shortly after turning the age of sixteen. Each is in three short movements, two fast and one slow. The slow movement is in the middle except in K. 137 in B-flat major, where it begins the divertimento. All nine of these movements are exquisite little examples of how Mozart was capable of giving each of the parts in the string section its own distinctive line in a rhetoric that seamlessly shifts between harmonic blends and the conversational exchanges of counterpoint. Barantschik took a brisk approach to K. 138, allowing the fast movements to reflect Mozart’s exuberance. Nevertheless, the performance was distinguished by its crisp clarity, allowing the attentive listener to appreciate the intricacy with which Mozart could weave together five parts, even when working with relatively brief and straightforward formal structures.
This “joy of youth” was then trumped by Felix Mendelssohn’s early violin concerto in D minor, composed in 1822 at the age of thirteen. Here, again, Barantschik both led and performed solo in a spirited account of elegantly turned out melodic material for the soloist backed up by an energetic accompaniment from the strings. While it is tempting to compare Mendelssohn-the-prodigy with Mozart-the-prodigy, the final Allegro movement of the concerto serves up a healthy share of the spirit of Joseph Haydn’s capacity of wit, a rhetorical stance not usually associated with Mendelssohn at any period in his life. Barantschik clearly appreciated that, while there were many traditional elements in this concerto, both structurally and thematically, those witty gestures brought a depth to the music that distinguished it above Mendelssohn’s other early efforts.
The intermission was followed by Benjamin Britten’s Opus 4, composed when he was twenty years old between December of 1933 and February of 1934. In the context of the first half of the program, this would almost make him the “grand old man” of the evening. However, much of the thematic material was drawn from some of Britten’s earliest efforts at composition from ten years earlier. In other words many of the sources were conceived when Britten was younger than the Mendelssohn who composed the D minor violin concerto.
Britten was never enamored of the symphony as a structural form; and Opus 4 is a delightful example of how he could poke at tradition with a good-humored rhetoric. The movement titles should be enough to cue the listener that Britten is in this piece for the fun of it: Boisterous Bourrée, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Saraband, and Frolicsome Finale. Each is true to its title, and each never overplays the wit behind its conception. Under Barantschik’s leadership it was clear that all of his SFS colleagues took delight in sharing the fun, providing an account through which those of us on audience side could appreciate every one of Britten’s playful gestures.
This left Piazzolla to be the “grand old man” in the program. Cohen took two of Piazzolla’s tangos, “Melodia” (1992) and “Libertango” (1973), and arranged them for solo violin and strings with a solo violin cadenza joining the two. At last night’s performance the strings were joined by Seth Asarnow on bandoneón, Robin Sutherland on piano, and Raymond Froehlich on drum set.
Under Barantschik’s leadership, this ensemble had no trouble getting into Piazzolla’s jazzy spirit. This is particularly worth noting when one realizes that, with its repeated descending bass line, “Libertango” is structurally a lament that traces back (at least) as far as the secular vocal compositions of Claudio Monteverdi in the fifteenth century. In that respect the mournful quality of Asarnow’s bandoneón provided the rhetorical foundation for this performance, possibly even suggesting that Piazzolla had lived in a time when the concept of “liberty” had been severely strained in his native Argentina.