Violinist Hilary Hahn was guest soloist this afternoon’s at Davies Symphony Hall for this week’s run of subscription concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conducted by Osmo Vänskä. As I observed in my preview article, she chose to perform Sergei Prokofiev’s first of two violin concertos, Opus 19 in D major. She seems to have made herself a champion of this work, which tends to receive far less attention than the second (Opus 63 in G minor); and today’s performance definitely made the case that her championing has been well directed. Indeed, in the context of this month’s events at Davies, her performance nicely paralleled Glenn Dicterow’s advocacy of Béla Bartók’s first violin concerto, which also tends to be overshadowed by his second.
Prokofiev composed Opus 19 in Russia during the summer of 1917, the same time he was working on his first (“Classical”) symphony (Opus 25 in D major). In the timeline of Russian history that places it between the February Revolution and the October Revolution led by the Bolsheviks. In other words it was not the best time for violin concertos in Russia, and it had to wait until October 18, 1923 for its first performance in the Concerts Koussevitzky series in Paris. In contrast to the Opus 25 symphony, the concerto is a bold adventure in modernist sonorities, which turned out to be too bold for the Parisians.
Nevertheless, Hahn did an excellent job of taking those old Parisians to task. She has a gift for launching into some of the most aggressive sul ponticello bowing to be found in the literature and still making it sound almost as melodic as the rest of her bowing. Over the course of the concerto’s three movements, Prokofiev requires the violinist to engage with a variety of different instrumental combinations; and, through her chemistry with Vänskä, Hahn brought out the full expressiveness of each of these orchestral colorations. Vänskä also seemed sensitive to Prokofiev’s rhetoric of augmenting a theme in the bass line, a technique that had served him well in his earlier Opus 16 piano concerto in G minor (the second).
If the full range of the orchestral palette signified in Prokofiev’s concerto, then it was even more significant in the “overture” that preceded it, the single movement “Minea,” composed by Kalevi Aho on commission from the Minnesota Orchestra in 2008. (Vänskä had conducted Aho’s “Louhi” when he visited SFS in 2007.) The program note by James M. Keller tried to situate Aho in a context of many other composers: Gustav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Joonas Kokkonen, Aulis Sallinen, György Ligeti, and Alfred Schittke. Those who know orchestral Sallinen will probably note the family resemblance, particularly in this composition’s preference for bold bright sounds. However, when the percussion begins to take over in the middle section with a driving, and slightly eccentric, rhythmic pattern that dominates all thematic material, one wonders if Aho was familiar with Silvestre Revueltas and the ritualistic snake-killing of “Sensemayá” (performed by SFS in October of 2010).
Whatever the influences may actually have been, the language of Aho’s “Minea” was decidedly his own. Clearly familiar with it, Vänskä offered up its first performance in San Francisco with a confidently assured hand. He clearly enjoyed the fact that Aho had brought this music to his own ensemble in Minneapolis (whose name inspired the title); and that joy was evident as he disclosed each of the compositions three waves of gradual crescendo to his San Francisco audience. Now, out of curiosity, were those waves conceived in recognition that the root of both “Minneapolis” and “Minnesota” is the Dakota word for “water?” Enquiring minds want to know!
The symphony portion of the concert provided another opportunity to reflect on Shostakovich with his Opus 54 symphony in B minor. Having heard this symphony performed last month in Davies when the Cleveland Orchestra visited with their Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, I am beginning to think that it might actually be a juxtaposition of two rather different symphonies. The first is the opening Largo, which seems to have been heavily influenced by Mahler, beginning with the extended melodic line for violas that parallels the opening of Mahler’s tenth symphony (but with the addition of an English horn). We know that Shostakovich owed much to Mahler; and, while this movement never makes very specific literal acknowledgements, it abounds in figurative references. The remaining two movements usually take less time than the first. They are both fast-paced, and the conclusion of the final Presto is a flat-out romp in which Shostakovich seems to be reflecting more on his pre-Stalin “bad boy” moments than on Mahler.
If the overall plan for the symphony is thus bipolar, that radical contrast did not seem to phase Vänskä. Each half of this somewhat unbalanced symphony was given due acknowledgement with its appropriate spirit. Vänskä’s interpretation thus emerged as a journey from almost despairing darkness into an almost manically affirmative light, perhaps reflecting Shostakovich’s relief at having survived his period of denunciation by the Communist Party.
Before the intermission Hahn took a solo encore. She performed “Two Voices,” composed for her by Nico Muhly. This may have been a contemporary take on the extent to which much of what Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for solo violin involves at least two voices in counterpoint. Muhly’s voices, however, seemed to define themselves through dramatic qualities associated with register, rather than the abstract voice-leading constraints of traditional counterpoint. It was a short but technically demanding piece that never exceeded the bounds of Hahn’s comfort zone and provided an engaging contrast to the technical demands she had confronted in her Prokofiev performance.