Conductor leads big, forceful program
Van Zweden extracts brawn, beauty from S.F. Symphony
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.
Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden brought his no-nonsense approach to Davies Symphony Hall.