Friday, January 11, 2019

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

The last time I heard Jaap van Zweden as guest conductor of SFS, he was visiting from Dallas. Now he's the music director of the New York Philharmonic. He's gone up in the world.

Last time, also, he was here to intensify the extremes of tempo and pacing of the works he was conducting. This time, he aimed at being smooth and pulling an even strain.

He picked interesting works to do this with: Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, which is a fairly short work for a very small orchestra, and Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, which is a very long work for a fairly large orchestra.

Soloist in the Mozart was SFS's own principal clarinet, Carey Bell. The smoothness and evenness were his. He was the opposite of the wildman I last heard play this piece. His tone was remarkably measured and placid; only some very low notes sounded rotund. And goodness knows, no squeaking at the high end. There was just enough graininess in the sound to make it interesting.

The Fifth is one of Bruckner's longest symphonies, and his most fragmented. Both the opening movement and finale begin with long series of disparate fragments that stubbornly refuse to cohere until at least halfway through. The eventual payoff, especially in the finale, is worth it if you're willing to sit through that much, but first you have to get there.

It takes a strong hand on the tiller to overcome this and make the Fifth into a solid, coherent entity, and it seems to me that van Zweden did this, at the cost perhaps of less emphasis on the more glorious passages than might have been heard in a less consistent performance. It also seems to me that, while the players gave the conductor what he wanted, they weren't always at the absolute top of their training in doing so.

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