Over the course of his many regular visits to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall, Pablo Heras-Casado has taken on an impressive breadth of repertoire and delivered consistently compelling performances. However, one of his great gifts is a solid command on the chamber orchestra scale. New Yorkers can appreciate this talent through his capacity as Principal Conductor of the Orchestra of Saint Luke’s, a position that he has held since 2012. On this side of the country, listeners have been able to appreciate the impressive harmonia mundi recordings he has released conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, recordings that include (in spite of the ensemble’s name) impressive accounts of the music of Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann.
For the first week of his two-week visit to SFS, Heras-Casado decided to bring his chamber orchestra sensibilities to Davies, performing an entire program with a significantly reduced string section. Indeed, those anticipating any characteristically “big” sound had to wait for the very end of the evening, which was devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 36 (second) symphony in D major. Much of the volume, however, could be attributed to a major commitment to winds and brass, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, along with timpani. For this selection Heras-Casado knew exactly the degree to which he should enlarge his string section for just the right level of balance.
Nevertheless, he made sure that, as listeners, none of us lapsed into the usual clichés about the “heroic” Beethoven. Opus 36 is a vivid reminder of Beethoven’s abundant capacity for wit, complete with his rejection of a third-movement Menuetto in favor of a scherzo. However, even when Beethoven is not poking the listener’s ribs to demonstrate that he can be cleverer than his former teacher Joseph Haydn, there is a pervading rhetoric of play that envelops the entire symphony; and Heras-Casado was right on the money in his convincing account of that rhetorical stance. His approach to Beethoven put the cap on a delightful evening of convergence of music-to-be-played with music-as-play.
In order to set the tone for his Beethoven, Heras-Casado made a decidedly but entirely appropriate decision. He wound back the clock about 130 years to precede Opus 36 with one of the earliest forms of program music. The composer was Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, and his composition had the extended title Battalia: Das liederliche Schwirmen der Musquetirer, Mars, die Schlacht und Lamento der Verwundeten, mit Arien imitirt und Baccho dedicirt (battle: the dissolute reveling of musketeers, march, the battle, and lament of the wounded, imitated with airs and dedicated to Bacchus).
Note that dedication. While this suite ends with a lament, the rest is devoted to overt commitment to “party on.” The revels of the musketeers include not only foot-stomping dancing but also full-voice singing of eight popular songs simultaneously. All this is scored for only three violins, four violas, bass, and continuo (harpsichord and cello). During the battle the bass becomes a leading instrument with snap pizzicato effects depicting the musket shots. All of the episodes testify that brevity is, indeed, the soul of wit; and the entire piece clocks in at about ten minutes.
Heras-Casado clearly enjoyed preparing and conducting this piece, stamping his foot at the appropriate time along with the musicians (all of whom, except for cello and harpsichord) were standing. His joy was infectious in both directions. The players bought into the spirit of the entire affair while maintaining deadpan focus on all of the technical hoops they had to negotiate. In the other direction the audience clearly appreciated the humor behind Biber’s approach to musical representation and gave the performance a rousingly appreciative reception.
High spirits were also in the air at the beginning of the program. Heras-Casado gave the first SFS performances of a selection of movements from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Pigmalion,” a one-act opera based on the Greek myth of Pygmalion in which dance figures as heavily as song. Heras-Casado compiled his own suite for the evening, including the overture, instrumental arrangements of the vocal music, and instrumental accompaniment for the choreographed action. Curiously, this music was on the same durational scale as the Biber selection, again with a series of relatively short movements, each of which said its piece and then moved on to the next one. Once again there was a playfulness to Heras-Casado’s conducting style and to the responsiveness of the ensemble.
The only weakness of the evening came, ironically, with the Haydn selection, his Hoboken XVIII/11 keyboard concerto in D major. The soloist was pianist Ingrid Fliter; and, while Heras-Casado had no trouble capturing the full extent of the light witty spirits that Haydn evoked, Fliter seemed to be playing in an alternative reality. Her keyboard style was idiosyncratic with forcefully mannered wide swings in her approach to dynamic level. Where Haydn (and Heras-Casado) appreciated the rhetorical impact of subdued delivery, Fliter was banging out her reminders of where the themes were (occasionally supplementing her assault on the keyboard with the clunking of her shoes on the floor). It was almost as if she felt that P.D.Q. Bach’s “Concerto for Piano vs. Orchestra” (S. 88) was in need of a serious performance. Fortunately, Heras-Casado maintained the prevailing light-hearted rhetorical tone for the entirety of the rest of the program.