Music Review: San Francisco Symphony plays Dvorak

James Conlon
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Conductor James Conlon took the stage of Davies Symphony Hall after intermission on Thursday night like a conjuror with a particularly impressive trick up his sleeve. He wasn't far wrong.

The magic Conlon had planned for his appearance with the San Francisco Symphony was a triptych of orchestral overtures by Dvorák, conceived as a single suite of pieces but soon broken up into its component parts. Thursday's performance, delivered with the kind of zeal that only a true champion can muster, was an exciting voyage into mostly little-known territory.

Dvorák's triptych, to which he gave the umbrella title "Nature, Life and Love," consists of three somewhat programmatic works. One of them, the "Carnival" Overture, has become a repertory staple. A second, "In Nature's Realm," is a rarity (the Symphony last played it in 1925) whose obscurity is, if not entirely merited, certainly understandable.

But the real revelation was the third piece, "Othello." This is a tone poem in all but name, introduced to the Symphony repertoire in 1995, that conjures up both Shakespeare's tragedy and Verdi's operatic treatment of it in strongly dramatic terms.

There is some narrative content in the piece - Dvorák noted some of the plot points in his manuscript - that focuses on Othello's climactic murder of Desdemona (Iago is nowhere to be heard). But what's more striking is the way Dvorák evokes the mood and emotional resonance of the story.

The opening section, beautifully played by the Symphony strings, is a muted hush that is reminiscent of the beginning of Verdi's Act 4 but cast in Dvorák's less urbane terms. When the deathly events occur, they bring on a wave of forceful writing for the woodwinds and brass, and some entirely unpredictable harmonic shifts.

If "Othello" proved to be the most unusual component, it was just as remarkable to hear the familiar strains of the "Carnival" Overture in its original intended context. The influence of Wagner suffuses the entire suite, from the ripe harmonies and orchestral palette to the use of a unifying melodic motif to depict Nature that is a close cousin of the corresponding motif from the "Ring" Cycle.

"In Nature's Realm," a sunny pastoral, sounded pretty but not particularly original, its melody conjuring up not only the "Morning Mood" from Grieg's "Peer Gynt" but also the "Forest Murmurs" from "Siegfried." Still, Conlon and the orchestra gave it a bright overlay of sound, and collaborated on a vivid, exuberant account of the "Carnival" Overture.

Violinist Joshua Bell was a welcome soloist - suave and technically commanding as ever - in Bruch's G-Minor Concerto. Particularly in the first two movements of the concerto, he brought splendid intonation and shapely phrasing to the music.

The rapid finale got away from him a bit, but here too the overall impression was dynamic and well-tuned. As an entertaining encore, he brought out Vieuxtemps' "Souvenir d'Amérique," a set of grinning variations on "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

The evening's one misstep was its opening, a brusque and overly emphatic rendition of Wagner's "Meistersinger" Prelude.