Arts & Events

A Perplexing San Francisco Symphony Concert

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday October 08, 2017 - 01:31:00 PM

Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbanski returned to San Francisco to lead the Symphony in two October programs featuring works of his native Poland. For the October 6-8 concerts, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima led off the program, followed by Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor. Interestingly, and somewhat perplexingly, the only work that won my unreserved praise was Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.  

Composed in 1960 and premiered in Warsaw in 1961, this work was originally entitled 8’37,” which corresponds to its running time. Then Penderecki changed the title to Tren, the Polish word for lament or dirge. Later, he added the dedication to the Hiroshima victims. However, Penderecki acknowledges that he was not thinking of the American use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima while composing this work, which he intended as a lament for the difficult times Poland was going through circa 1960 at the height of the Cold War. In any case, Threnody, which I first heard played by Oakland Symphony under Gerhard Samuel in the late 1960s, is an eerie, compelling work that gets under your skin with its harsh dissonances and unorthodox tonal clusters, including quarter-tones. In San Francisco, conductor Urbanski skillfully brought out all the seething ferment and dark foreboding that underlies this incisive work. This was a taut, terse, deeply expressive account of Penderecki’s Threnody.  

Next on the program was Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with young German violinist Augustin Hadelich as soloist. Any successful performance of this great work must get off the mark immediately, as the soloist enters after a single opening measure and plays a rapturous melody that should – and usually does – sweep you off your feet. Here, however, Hadelich’s tone was noticeably thin, with the result that the opening melody lost much of its seductive power. Later, however, his tone was fuller and richer. Why it was not so in the all-important opening melody is an open question. Throughout this concerto, Hadelich had me moving in and out of the work, questioning what I was hearing from him. In the first movement’s cadenza, for example, Hadelich kept stopping for long pauses between one passage and the next, thereby canceling out any hint of exuberant improvisation. (Of course, Mendelssohn wrote out this cadenza, so improvisation is only hinted at even when violinists play it without pauses. Here, however, Hadelich made it ponderous.) Then, in the slow movement, music that should be dreamy was merely sleepy and sluggish. This too I lay at the feet of Hadelich, for much of the time in this movement the violinist plays with very sparse accompaniment, so the sluggish tempo was seemingly imposed by Hadelich and not by conductor Urbanski. Only in the third and final movement did conductor and soloist come together to produce a fully satisfying unity of interpretation. Even here, however, I must note that on several occasions when reaching for a high note at the top of his instrument’s register, Hadelich failed to make this note audible against the orchestra’s full string section. All told, this was a most perplexing performance of a work I dearly love. My acute reservations notwithstanding, Hedelich received enthusiastic acclaim from the audience, to which he responded with a vivid account of Paganini’s Caprice No. 21 as an encore. 

After intermission, Urbanski returned to lead the Symphony in Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony in E minor. At a running time of 53 minutes, this symphony seems to go on forever. Moreover, its opening movement is longer than the work’s third and fourth movements together. The first movement is dark and brooding, and, as program notes acknowledge, doesn’t seem at times to know where it’s going. Indeed, there are tedious moments here and there in this movement, and not only in this movement but in the third and fourth as well. As for the second movement, well, Shostakovich acknowledged that it’s a musical portrait of Joseph Stalin, who died shortly before this symphony was written. It’s a mad, furious scherzo, full of unrelenting savagery. Thankfully, it is brief. In the third movement, Shostakovich plays with four notes that offer a signature of his own name, oft repeated. This gets tedious after a while. However, in remarks offered by Urbanski before playing this symphony, it was remarked that Shostakovich also played with notes that offered a signature of one of his female students with whom he was infatuated. Urbanski called this “a love story, though one that went nowhere. When Shostakovich’s first wife died, he quickly married a second wife, not the student with whom he had been infatuated. None of this self-referencing can rescue this music from tediousness. The fourth and finale movement is open to the same charge. It goes on much too long, and is full of bombast. How anyone can claim that the 10th Symphony is Shostakovich’s masterpiece I can’t fathom. I’ll take the 5th Symphony or even the 13th “Babi Yar” Symphony any day of the week and twice on Sunday over the 10th. Oh well, to each his own taste, I suppose.