Arts & Events

Heras-Casado Conducts Schoenberg and Brahms

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday March 02, 2018 - 05:44:00 PM

Pablo Heras-Casado, who was last seen here in 2016 conducting the San Francisco Symphony in works by Mozart, Schumann, and Dvorak, returned to Davies Hall this weekend, March 1-3, to conduct Helix by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Violin Concerto No. 2 in C-sharp minor by Arnold Schoenberg, and Symphony No. 1 in C minor by Johannes Brahms. Heras-Casado, as I noted in reviewing his 2016 appearances here, exudes confidence and charisma, and he conducts with an extremely energetic style. In fact, he’s almost too energetic. Orchestra members don’t really need to have every single phrase acted out for them by a conductor. Nor should audiences require such coddling. While dynamic energy has its place, that place is hardly each and every moment of a work being performed. In conducting, less is sometimes more. (Take Herbert Blomstedt, for example.)  

However, to give Heras-Casado his due, he led the San Francisco Symphony effectively this weekend in a program that might give both conductors and orchestras some trouble. Helix by Esa-Pecca Salonen is a 9-minute piece of relentless accelerando. It is almost as full of bombast as Ravel’s Bolero. Like this latter, Helix struck me as extremely distasteful. In choosing to perform it, perhaps Heras-Casado wished to give a nod to contemporary music. All well and good, though as music it’s not so good. Next on the program was another work often shunned by conductors and audiences: Schoenberg’s Concerto No. 2 in C-sharp minor for Violin and Orchestra. This work, dating from 1967, was dedicated to violinist David Oistrakh, who performed it at its official premiere on September 26, 1967 in Moscow with Kiril Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic. For our San Francisco Symphony performances this week, Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik was the solo violinist; and his love for this work was evident. He even contributed a little item in the Program Notes calling attention to the street songs, folk songs, a Yiddish cry of a street-vendor selling bagels, and melodies of David Oistrakh’s hometown of Odessa, on the Black Sea.  

Barantschik gave a thoroughly satisfying rendition of Schostakovich’s writing for solo violin. If Barantschik’s tone was a bit thin early on, it became fuller as the concerto progressed. He handled the first movement’s cadenza, a two-part invention, with much aplomb. The second movement, marked Adagio, opens with the solo violin backed softly by cellos. Soon the violin engages a dialogue with various wind instruments, beginning with the flute. A cadenza ensues, this time with explosive chords over a timpani roll. The solo violin goes on virtuosic runs, eventually returning to the flute melody heard earlier. A solo horn enters to close out this movement in a soft, poignant finish. The final movement begins in the same Adagio tempo as the second movement; and the solo violin opens with the same note last heard in the horn. Now, however, four horns intrude with a sarcastic shriek, as if to undercut the violin’s melody. The violin responds with vigor. Now the tempo accelerates to Allegro, and the finale begins in the form of a humorous, even acerbic, rondo. Three distinct themes are introduced. The third theme sets up a dialogue between solo violin and oboe and clarinet. Yet another cadenza ensues, this one bigger and more powerful than the earlier two. This cadenza sets in motion a brisk, full-bore closing statement that brings this concerto to a rousing finish. Throughout this concerto, conductor Heras-Casado and violinist Barantschik were well teamed together; and theirs was a very rewarding and enjoyable interpretation of this infrequently heard Violin Concerto No. 2 by Schoenberg. 

After intermission, Heras-Casado returned to lead the Symphony in the one staple workhorse of the program: Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. Daunted by the nine symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms delayed composing a symphony until he felt he was ready. “You have no idea,” he wrote, “what it’s like to hear the footsteps of a giant like Beethoven behind you.” Brahms began his first symphony in 1862 but didn’t complete it until 1876.  

Fourteen years in the making, Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor was an immediate success at its premiere on November 4, 1876 in Karlsruhe under Otto Desoff. Its thirty-seven bar introduction has been called one of the sublime utterances in symphonic literature. Personally, I find this opening pompously portentous. To me, it strikes a pose, but not one I immediately accept on face value. It strives all too earnestly to be taken ever so seriously, and I find myself holding reservations about this pose. Moreover, to me, I never quite get over my reservations until the fourth and final movement, when Brahms unleashes an exultant melody that is clearly derivative from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his Ninth Symphony. In short, the spector of Beethoven hovers over Brahms’ First Symphony in all too evident a fashion. Thus, though I admire the overall ambition and texture of Brahms First Symphony, I find it an almost academic exercise, albeit a very fine exercise, demonstrating how difficult it must have been to write a symphony after Beethoven. In this regard, however, Franz Schubert had already shown what an original voice he could muster in writing symphonies immediately after Beethoven. In any case, by the time Brahms wrote his Fourth Symphony, I concede that he had by then found his own symphonic voice, and the Brahms Fourth Symphony is one of my favorites of the symphonic repertory.  

In conducting the Brahms First Symphony, Pablo Heras-Casado was all over the podium, leaping, crouching, waving his arms in horizontal slashing gestures, then sweeping his arms to call forth sweeping melodic phrases. His energetic gestures did not so much lead the orchestra, it seemed to me, as call attention to the music for the benefit of the audience. However, I find this a questionable agenda. In conducting, as I said earlier, less is sometimes more.