Rising star at Davies
by Philip Campbell
As the current San Francisco Symphony season dashes towards an exciting and prolonged finale, recent weeks at Davies Symphony Hall have been noteworthy for the interest of the programming and the distinction of the instrumental soloists – one a returning guest artist, and two drawn from the orchestra's own ranks.
French cellist Gautier Capucon made an indelible impression at DSH a few years back when he played Henri Dutilleux's Tout un monde lointain (A Whole Distant World ) to initially bewildered but ultimately approving audiences. His previous visit and SFS debut was marked by a much safer repertory choice, the Schumann Concerto in A minor, but his masterful performance and intense stage presence alerted listeners to the presence of a fascinating rising star. Choosing the challenging and mysterious Dutilleux piece for his second visit, Capucon dared to show a bolder side to his musical personality. SFS patrons and subscribers are a fairly open-minded crowd as long as there is some musical comfort food included on the bill, and veteran guest conductor Charles Dutoit supplied the needed balance with a solid interpretation of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique . One might say the Berlioz was a bit of a shocker in its own day, too, but the once-provocative Symphonie has mellowed to become a classic today.
Antonin Dvorak's beloved Concerto in B minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 104, has also acquired a burnished patina since premiering in 1896, but the composer never really meant to scare the horses anyway. The long, beautifully rich and demanding (at least for the soloist) Concerto in B has become a favorite, mostly due to the technical difficulties placed on the soloist, and the melodic warmth and lyricism listeners have always expected from Dvorak. It was a welcome relief and sort of a revelation to hear Capucon eschew the sentimental, overly nostalgic approach that so many cellists have adopted when performing the old chestnut over the years. This was an altogether leaner, more dry-eyed reading. There was an astringent quality to the playing that seemed the aural equivalent of cleaning an old master's painting. The fierce mood was tempered with lovely reflective interludes, but Capucon didn't relent for long, and the always dramatic coda was more exciting than ever.
Last week brought SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and Principal Violist Jonathan Vinocour into the spotlight for performances of the young (18!) Benjamin Britten's Double Concerto in B minor for Violin, Viola and Orchestra. What a treat to see our SFS musicians given the opportunity to strut their stuff, even if the Britten is less a tour de force than a rather dark-hued and rhapsodic duet. There is much in the score that shows us who the composer would become, and a hint of the mystery and subtlety of his rather skimpy output of film and documentary music. The soloists are well-known to us for their technical mastery and low-key personalities, and both seemed perfectly suited to the absorbing if not particularly dazzling score.
Guest conductor Kirill Karabits opened the concert with another score from the 20th century, Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231 (Mouvement symphonique No. 1). It was a scrappy reading of a huffing piece that seemed as good a curtain-raiser as anything else.
It was Barantschik's and Vinocour's performance that really got the crowd enthused. Two young ladies from the audience brought poseys to both soloists with a couple of red roses to the conductor. The Concertmaster's surprise and blushing acceptance was not only endearing, but also a reminder that even the best musicians in the SFS do not necessarily see themselves as stars. They are highly individual talents to those of us who hear them season after season in the service of their art.