Glinka "Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila," J.S. Bach
"Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo" (Gil Shaham
and Alexander Barantchik, violins), Liszt "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
in C minor," Rachmaninoff "Vocalise," Ravel "Tzigane" (Shaham), Sarasate
"Navarra" (Shaham, Barantchik), Tchaikovsky "Theme and Variations from
Suite No. 3 in G major"; San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson
Thomas, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, September 4,
You can tell opening night is not for the regulars
when they applaud loudly between movements of the J.S. Bach "Concerto
in D Minor for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo," especially when the
performance was something of a muddle. Part of the problem was the preliminary
speech by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who quite rightly put the
focus on the violin in use by the symphony's concertmaster, Alexander
Barantchik, who teamed with the Israel-born soloist Gil Shaham for the
Thomas explained with his characteristic enthusiasm
how the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco had made an arrangement with
the symphony for Barantchik to use the "David" Guarnerius that had been
left to the museums by Jascha Heifitz. Several of the benefactors who
made this happen were in the audience to be publicly thanked, and this
being the first time the public had heard the violin with the symphony,
it's understandable that the big finish of the first movement would
draw applause. I only found it irritating that the transition from the
quiet second movement to the lively finale was also interrupted by more
This is unmistakably a superb violin. It has a sweet
sound, even a little old-fashioned, mellower and less clarion than the
Stradivarius Shaham was playing. Barantchik and the "David" will be
featured several times this season, including a performance of the Schnittke
Violin Concerto No. 4 in January and in several chamber music concerts.
For this performance, Barantchik was having some problems
with intonation and, in some cases, making the notes sound clearly,
especially in the first movement. In the lovely slow movement, the antique
sound of the Guarnerius trumped Shaham's Strad. and so did Barantchik's
playing, which hewed to a characteristic Baroque style. Shaham employed
a romantic portamento and made things a bit too lush. In the finale,
however, Shaham's vigorous approach and spot-on articulation carried
the day. Barantchik kept up nicely. Forget about a unified approach.
This was a free-for-all, fun but not the most satisfying Bach you've
The rest of the violin-heavy program featured the same
two in a rousing performance of "Navarra," a Spanish-flavored showpiece
for two violins by Pablo Sarasate, and Shaham alone in Ravel's technicolor
extravaganza "Tzigane." The latter offered an extra lesson in distinctions
among violins when a string broke on Shaham's instrument and he effected
a quick exchange with Nadia Tichman, the acting concertmaster. Her fiddle
wasn't nearly as loud, but despite his unfamiliarity with it Shaham
brought off the finger-busting finale with panache.
The orchestra took a while to get warmed up. It opened
the concert with the overture to "Ruslan and Ludmila," which ended slower
than it started, not a good sign. But the string playing was otherwise
razor-sharp, a theme that continued through the evening. The violin
section has never been San Francisco Symphony's forte, in both senses
of the word. They've neither been very distinctive nor very loud. Barantchik
seems have had a salutary effect since he arrived from his previous
post as the London Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster in September 2001.
In this concert I heard a richness and depth of sound that has only
been achieved sporadically in the past.
The concert's orchestral pieces put the violins through
their paces, offering an opportunity to appreciate the string section's
articulation, which has always a strength. The Liszt "Hungarian Rhapsody
No. 2" starts with them growling on the low G string and includes some
piping on high harmonics, all executed cleanly. Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise"
lets them sing a long melody and Tchaikovsky's "Theme and Variations
from Suite No. 3" includes several instances where the violin section
blazes away in rapid-fire sixteenth notes.
Other than the Bach, the Tchaikovsky was the only piece
on the program hat has something more to offer than being mainly a showpiece.
With something to chew on, the orchestra responded with its finest work
of the evening, the only time all the elements came together to make
Next week's first subscription concerts offer a lot
more to chew on, including pieces by Stravinsky, Barber, Ruggles and
the Tchaikovsky "Serenade for Strings." After such a fine performance
of the Tchaikovsky variations, that's something to anticipate.