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SF Symphony does Haydn concerto

Les Violons du Roy
San Francisco Chronicle

Mozart wrote many concertos, Haydn a mere handful. The reasons are fairly obvious - Haydn was not a virtuoso himself, and his secure gig with the Eszterhazy family meant that he didn't have to compete in the musical open market the way Mozart did.

Still, his occasional turns toward the genre are rewarding. Certainly the Sinfonia Concertante in B-Flat - an ingenious quadruple concerto of sorts, which made a rare and invigorating appearance in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday afternoon - gives a glimpse of Haydn's inventive engine in high gear.

In a suave and shapely performance by the San Francisco Symphony under guest conductor Bernard Labadie, this piece revealed a wealth of technical bravura as well as the combination of wit and expressiveness so characteristic of Haydn's late work.

The solo instruments are violin, cello, oboe and bassoon, but the whole idea of the "sinfonia concertante" - a "concerto-ish symphony," to translate crudely - is that the line between soloists and orchestra is consistently blurred. The quartet of headliners repeatedly steps out into the spotlight, then fades back into the ensemble without a hitch.

And that's only one of several dualities that Haydn keeps going throughout the piece. In his writing for the soloists, he pits low instruments against high, woodwinds against strings, melodic writing against accompaniment figures, counterpoint against block chords - and still finds time for bolts of pure whimsy, like the quasi-operatic recitative with which the violin gets the finale under way.

Thursday's soloists - violinist Dan Nobuhiko Smiley, cellist Peter Wyrick, oboist Jonathan Fischer and bassoonist Stephen Paulson - worked as well together as individually. Smiley's bright-hued, temperamental playing lent vividness to the recitative passage, and offered a telling contrast to Fischer's more mellow contributions. Paulson, the only veteran of the piece's last performance in 1982, seemed to be playing quarterback, providing rhythmic and tonal solidity for the group.

After intermission, Labadie turned to Mozart, leading a buoyant and tonally alluring account of the Serenade No. 10 in B-Flat, known as the "Gran Partita." Scored for a dozen wind instruments and one lone bass, this is a rich and sometimes ponderous creation - and with seven formally expansive movements clocking in at a solid hour, it's also one of Mozart's most extended pieces of instrumental music.

Yet Labadie and his forces dodged every risk of heavy-handedness, bringing out the lyrical fluency of the exquisite slow movements and delivering the two minuets with brisk ebullience. The theme-and-variations that comes just before the finale is always a high point of this piece, and Labadie ensured that its variety and unpredictability came through.