Perfecting the basics is the hardest to master, as testified by the San Francisco Symphony on May 27. Taking on tried and true pieces from masters Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the Symphony enlivened fan favorites with vivacity and vigor.
The crowd, which flooded in well before the call time, rumbled with a voracious appetite for the evening’s program. A hearty selection of “Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates)” and “Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny)” by Brahms and the beloved “Symphony No. 6” by Tchaikovsky challenged both audience expectations and orchestral ability.
When the Symphony has the opportunity to play with a full orchestra, Davies’ cavernous hall turns into a cornucopia, offering a multi-course meal of sound and texture galore. Musicians overflowed each riser level, with the string section’s bows creating a hatch-mark design of wood and horsehair. A delicately commanded harp dimpled the stage’s smile, which turned upwards to hold the beaming orchestra. Each player erupted into rapid applause for guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann: a Davies veteran befit for such titanic tributes to the Romantic period.
Stutzmann’s conducting lived up to her legendary reputation. She remained thoroughly engaged with each bowing, breath and drumbeat, never sacrificing specificity. At times, Stutzmann seemed overwhelmed by the cataclysmic emotion produced at the command of her baton. Especially during the Tchaikovsky, she retired the ivory wand on her ledger and became possessed by the effervescent, sweeping strings — her body hung slack like a rag doll, the eyes of her elbows almost kissing her knees.
While audience members fastened their belts for the Tchaikovsky, the two Brahms pieces served as a stunning, somber introduction to the evening. The symphony welcomed the San Francisco Symphony Chorus into the upper section, where about 50 velvet-clad singers filtered in with music folders in hand. Straight from Stutzmann’s first motion, the two Brahms pieces presented a lush wall of sound that crashed down in controlled liberty.
An impressive thirty minutes of choral invigoration ensued, as the chorus spun mythical stories of gods and gallantry in meticulously layered German, translated for the audience by projector screens. Grandiose fantasy filled the hall, with images of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus evoked through both lyricism and texture. Doom of a mountainous degree coated the Brahms pieces from the chorus’s tonal despair, while levity from the orchestra painted minute brushstrokes over the solemnity.
To gear up for the Tchaikovsky, even more musicians joined Stutzmann to form an army ready to tackle the Russian giant head-on, with grace and without fear. The first few moments in the Tchaikovsky instantly set the tone, every chest taut in anticipation. The deep vibrato of principal bassoonist Stephen Paulson cooed over the swelling string notes. Stutzmann coaxed the bassoon’s melody out from the pocket of the ensemble where Paulson sat, nestled amongst the violas and woodwinds. With only the bassoon’s burgundy bell to be seen, the omnipresent echoing increased by visual obscurity.
Paulson did not remain alone in his technical triumph, however, as his fellow woodwinds danced in dialogue throughout the Tchaikovsky. Taking turns, clarinet, flute, oboe and bassoon flatteringly waltzed in tandem between the interludes of string passages. The same cannot be said for the initial footing of the brass section, as a weakened entrance disrupted the overall tone of the piece. Despite this minor misstep, romance still saturated the Tchaikovsky piece, with the repeated theme ringing in glassy eyed audience reception for the whole 45 minutes of continuous playing.
With its rendition of Tchaikovsky and Brahms, the San Francisco Symphony shed all inhibition and fully dove into the material. With Stutzmann firmly at the helm, the Symphony approached each piece with tenacity and commitment, demonstrating musical mastery. With a wonderful Spring season thus far, the Symphony continues to effortlessly deliver evening programs brimming with an infectious joie de vivre.