This afternoon at Davies Symphony Hall, Pablo Heras-Casado conducted the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in the first program of its two-week festival highlighting the music of Felix Mendelssohn and Thomas Adès. That program was structured in such a way that the event almost amounted to two distinct concerts separated by an intermission. Each of those “mini-concerts” had its own virtues; but it was the first one, which included Adès’ music, that was particularly imaginative.
One might say that, for the first half of the afternoon, the focus was on how the past was viewed from the perspective of the present. However, the selections were arranged in such a way that both “multiple presents” and “multiple pasts” were involved, although the “past being regarded,” so to speak, was somewhat more localized. The primary locus was the Baroque period that crossed from the end of the seventeenth century into the beginning of the eighteenth. That period was represented by two instrumental selections from Armide, an opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully that was first performed in Paris in 1686.
This was a time when opera amounted to “chamber music with acting vocalists” assisted by a generous supply of theatrical spectacle (which often had little to do with the music and everything to do with entertaining the audience). Between his role as Principal Conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and his ongoing relationship with the Freiburger Barockorchester, Heras-Casado is very comfortable working on a “chamber music” scale; and he has even explored this scale on a past SFS visit. It was thus no surprise that he chose to perform Lully with a reduced string section.
However, because he decided to include a harpsichord continuo (performed by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Corey Jamason without any credit in the program book), I personally felt that he did not scale back the strings enough. While the continuo is far from the most important part of the score, it almost always serves to bring a distinctive sonority that contrasts with the strings; and, if that sonority is pushed to the brink of inaudibility, it may as well be dropped altogether. Furthermore, the weight of the individual string sections led to an opacity of the instrumental texture that impeded the ability to appreciate the interleaving qualities of Lully’s approach to counterpoint.
Those qualities turned out to play an equally strong (and more effective) role in the following selection, Adès’ three studies on keyboard compositions by François Couperin, each one extracted from a different suite (ordre) from that composer’s four-volume Pièces de clavecin (keyboard works). Each of these studies involved a thorough rethinking of the sonorities that Couperin would have conceived in the service of the highly descriptive titles he most frequently selected for these pieces. Sometimes Adès’ approach would involve matters of style (such as distributing an arpeggio across different instruments). Sometimes it would involve breaking a melodic line into atomic units that would then be assigned to different instruments (as Anton Webern had done in his orchestration of one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s fugues). Other times, it accepted the phrases as Couperin had written them and recast them with different instrumental coloration.
The result was “something complete different” from what Richard Strauss had done when he prepared his “dance suite” of orchestrations of selections from the same Couperin collection. Where Strauss was content to orchestrate, taking the occasional liberty with his source material every now and then, Adès created a listening experience in which the Couperin sources were always drifting in and out of focus. This could sometimes be a bit unnerving, but it certainly held the attention of the serious listener. It also provided as stunning example of how the inventiveness of the present could still work with materials originating from the distant past.
That inventiveness was also the essence of the remaining work on the first half of this afternoon’s program, Igor Stravinsky’s D major violin concerto. Composed in 1931, this piece excellently represents the nature of what has been called Stravinsky’s “neoclassical” style. This amounts of a retrospective view of past composers (such as Lully and Couperin) refracted through Stravinsky’s highly characteristic approaches to phrase structure, rhythm, and overall rhetorical gestures. The movement labels (Toccata, Aria, Capriccio) can be found in Lully, Couperin, and, of course, Bach; but the sound is unmistakably Stravinsky.
However, Stravinsky’s retrospection involves more than just “reworking early music,” as he had done in preparing the score for the ballet “Pulcinella.” He wrote his concerto for Samuel Dushkin, who had studied with both Leopold Auer and Fritz Kreisler. In other words he was a violinist well versed in the virtuoso style of the late nineteenth century. One could imagine that he was more at home with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35 violin concerto in D major than he was with Stravinsky’s abstract modernism. However, Stravinsky himself was also a great admirer of Tchaikovsky, and it is probably not a coincidence that he composed his violin concerto in the same key Tchaikovsky has used. So we should consider that, in composing that concerto for Dushkin, he may have found ways to appeal to the violinist’s “comfort zone” without compromising his own stylistic preferences.
This afternoon’s soloist was violinist Leila Josefowicz; and what made her interpretation of this concerto particularly appealing is that, through her own personal performance rhetoric, she presented Stravinsky’s concerto as a retrospective view of the traditions of both the Baroque period and late nineteenth-century Russia. In following Stravinsky’s machine-like rhythms, she could just as easily have been a member of the Collegium Musicum at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig, where Bach would hang out when he was not “on the job.” Then, she would launch into a more lyrical line; and she could have been channeling Dushkin in his nineteenth-century comfort zone. All of this played out in crystal clarity against the impeccable management of the SFS resources by Heras-Casado, making for a stunningly distinctive (not to mention informative) account of Stravinsky as a “musician at work.”
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Mendelssohn. Had Heras-Casado chosen to continue the theme of retrospection on past music, Mendelssohn would have provided him with ample opportunity to do so. Instead, however, he chose to perform the composer’s Opus 56 (“Scottish”) symphony in A minor. If this music is retrospective at all, than it only reaches back to Mendelssohn’s Opus 26 concert overture, which he called “The Hebrides.” This overture evokes so many visual impressions that, in later terminology, it would have been called a tone poem; and, in many respects, Opus 56 amounts to further pursuit of the logic of a tone poem, now cast in the four-movement structure of a symphony.
As was the case with Opus 26, much of the rhetorical impact of Opus 56 derives from the evocative power of Mendelssohn’s instrumentation. One cannot fail to appreciate the acuity of judgment through which he has the sonorities of the wind and brass sections color the fuller textures of the string section, all punctuated by a keen sense of when and how to use the timpani. In the context of his recent harmonia mundi recording of early Schubert symphonies with the Freiburger Barockorchester, that particular approach to instrumental sonority in the first half of the nineteenth century is very much a part of Heras-Casado’s own comfort zone. Even though in Davies he was working with the larger SFS resources, he balanced those sonorities as effectively as he had done on his Schubert recording.
One result was that this was an account in which, particularly in the opening movement, the listener was reminded of the raw elemental power of nature that had inspired Mendelssohn to compose his Opus 26 overture. One could also appreciate how he was clearly entertaining the concept of a tone poem, even if he was still working out just what that concept was. Once again, this is Mendelssohn fiercely at work to fix on paper an abundance of ideas churning around in his mind; and Heras-Casado succeeded in capturing not only the ferocity of Mendelssohn’s inspiration but also the discipline through which he “tamed” all of those ideas for presentation in symphonic form. This was an account that made it clear just why Mendelssohn continues to be so worthy of our attention, thus providing the perfect conclusion to the first part of this ongoing two-week festival.