Con­duc­tor leads big, force­ful pro­gram

Van Zwe­den ex­tracts brawn, beauty from S.F. Sym­phony

San Francisco Chronicle - - DATEBOOK - By Joshua Kos­man

A sym­phony, or re­ally any piece of or­ches­tral mu­sic, is a com­plex bit of artis­tic ma­chin­ery, and many con­duc­tors get them to work through a com­bi­na­tion of logic, ten­der­ness, ca­jol­ing and tact. Jaap van Zwe­den sim­ply lays down the law and ex­pects the mu­sic to con­form.

The Dutch con­duc­tor, who is in the mid­dle of his first sea­son as mu­sic di­rec­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic, brought his im­pe­ri­ous, nonon­sense ap­proach to Davies Sym­phony Hall on Fri­day, Jan. 11, lead­ing the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony in mu­sic of Mozart and Bruck­ner. The re­sults weren’t es­pe­cially per­sua­sive, but they weren’t with­out mo­ments of grandeur ei­ther.

Van Zwe­den’s brand of mu­si­cian­ship is dis­tinc­tive and easy to spot from a dis­tance (he’s con­ducted once be­fore in San Fran­cisco, mak­ing his Sym­phony de­but in 2014 in a pro­gram of mu­sic by Mozart, Si­belius and Tchaikovsky). He fa­vors big, blunt tex­tures and de­lib­er­ate tem­pos that give him the chance to em­pha­size pas­sages that need em­pha­siz­ing. Dy­nam­ics tend to­ward the loud end of the spec­trum. There’s a fre­quent nar­ra­tive of strug­gle and tri­umph.

That’s not a pro­duc­tive ap­proach for ev­ery part of the or­ches­tral reper­toire, but to a first ap­prox­i­ma­tion it’s not bad for Bruck­ner. Fri­day’s se­lec­tion was the Fifth Sym­phony, and like all the com­poser’s sym­phonies, it’s a huge, spa­cious con­struc­tion ar­rayed across a long span of nearly 80 min­utes.

And un­like the work of Mahler, who took on some­thing of the older com­poser’s sym­phonic es­thetic, a Bruck­ner sym­phony tends to be hewn out of large, granitic blocks of sound, which get

Dutch con­duc­tor Jaap van Zwe­den fa­vors big, blunt tex­tures and de­lib­er­ate tem­pos.

as­sem­bled into some­thing evoca­tive of a me­dieval cas­tle. It takes mus­cle to heft those boul­ders into place, and mus­cle is some­thing van Zwe­den has plenty of.

So the most re­ward­ing sec­tions of Fri­day’s per­for­mance were those that in­volved big, im­pos­ing mu­si­cal ges­tures — the suc­ces­sion of the­matic ideas that are strung to­gether to form the sym­phony’s first move­ment, or the re­lent­less rhyth­mic stride of the scherzo, or most im­pres­sively, the broad and in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful stride to­ward the piece’s con­clu­sion. Here van Zwe­den har­nessed the sonic force of the orches­tra and drove it in a fiercely gleam­ing di­rec­tion.

But there’s a limit to how ef­fec­tive sheer brawn can be, and this was a per­for­mance that con­sis­tently missed many of the as­pects that give Bruck­ner’s mu­sic its verve.

The par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge with the Fifth Sym­phony is how to stitch to­gether its will­fully dis­parate el­e­ments — a short, in­gra­ti­at­ing melody here, a sud­den shift in tempo or fo­cus there — into a log­i­cally co­her­ent dis­course. On Fri­day, co­her­ence was too of­ten sac­ri­ficed to sonic weight, pro­duc­ing a dis­con­nected se­ries of ges­tures one after an­other. The orches­tra re­sponded in kind, mus­ter­ing a ro­bust sound at the dra­matic high points but of­ten sound­ing un­steady or ill-co­or­di­nated in be­tween.

The pro­gram’s shorter first half of­fered a sur­pris­ingly suc­cess­ful ac­count of Mozart’s Clar­inet Con­certo — sur­pris­ing be­cause van Zwe­den’s heavy­footed style wouldn’t seem well suited to Mozart’s mel­liflu­ous charm. Yet he and Carey Bell, the Sym­phony’s bril­liant prin­ci­pal clar­inetist, found a way to make it work.

Much of the credit goes to Bell, who built his solo part with con­sum­mate pre­ci­sion and gar­nished it with a layer of free and easy or­na­men­ta­tion. But van Zwe­den also gave the mu­sic a de­gree of so­lid­ity that never negated its es­sen­tial beauty.

This for­mula proved most al­lur­ing in the con­certo’s cen­tral slow move­ment, done in a care­ful and al­most la­bo­ri­ous style; the tempo was slow, the phras­ing de­lib­er­a­tive. Yet the ten­der elo­quence of Bell’s play­ing trans­ported the mu­sic to an­other realm.

Bert Hulsel­mans

Dutch con­duc­tor Jaap van Zwe­den brought his no-non­sense ap­proach to Davies Sym­phony Hall.

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