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S & H International Concert Review

San Francisco Symphony Season Opens With Fiddle Fête, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, September 4, 2002 (HS)


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, 2002.

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 Bach.

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 applause.

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 ever heard.

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 something special.

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.

Harvey Steiman

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