S.F. Symphony’s Actually Autumnal Brahms

Asher Fisch
San Francisco Classical Voice

By Steven Winn

The sun was beaming down outside. People around Civic Center were buzzing about the Giants’ first World Series win and anticipating a second. Pumpkins and various cheerfully spooky signs of Halloween brightened store windows. Inside Davies Hall on Thursday afternoon, meanwhile, conductor Asher Fisch and the San Francisco Symphony served notice that life is a very serious business.

That message came, forcefully and unmistakably, in a somber, dark-hued and potently restrained performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 4. From the quietly aching intervals of the opening theme to the funereal tread and yearning flute solo of the final movement, this repertory staple emerged as a haunting autumnal meditation. The softly fading light outside had a different hue when the doors opened and the audience scattered into the late afternoon. Music this feelingly performed tints everything with its own deeply embedded colors.

Fisch was a replacement on the Davies podium for late scratch Jaap van Zweden, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra music director who was slated to make his San Francisco Symphony debut. First with a delicate and attentive account of the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Lohengrin and especially with the Brahms that occupied the second half of the program, Fisch made sure that no one felt they were getting anything second best.

High Stakes Brahms
Best known for his work in opera – he is principal guest conductor of Seattle Opera and has various Metropolitan Opera credits – the Israeli-born Fisch conducted the Wagner and Brahms without a score. That, along with his limber, engaged demeanor and emphatic but never showy gestures, lent a sense of immediacy. The proof, of course, is in how the music comes across. Fisch made himself an instrument toward that end, a medium rather than the message or message giver.

Right from the start of the Brahms, the conductor and musicians took the long and penetrating view. The lyricism was there but never in an easy, sumptuous way. When the opening theme returned for the first time, it did so in a chastened, almost stricken way. An air of hushed gravity prevailed, with the inner lines emerging eerily in the calm. The brass exclamations carried the submerged force of what had come before.

With the stakes raised, the horns carried a quiet intensity into the Andante, echoed in turn by the mordant woodwinds and plaintive strings. None of this was milked or overdone. A few missteps notwithstanding, the flowing Andante was gradually, cogently and dramatically built. The design and simultaneous sense of spontaneity rode on into the third movement scherzo. The opening triumphalism quickly vanished, carried off by skittering, downward phrases. There was an unnerving agitation throughout, right down to the insistent, jangly triangle.

Fisch rushed ahead without pause into the finale, marked Allegro energico e passionato. The sense of desperate haste was quickly contradicted by strange, wonderfully wayward tempos that threatened to tear the movement into disjointed tatters. It was daring and thrilling, as the movement recovered to gather strength and inner resiliency. Things faltered a bit just before the close. But even that brief stutter seemed right, an affirmation of human frailty and our collective longing for fellowship.

A Dreamscape Prelude
The Lohengrin Act 1 Prelude gave San Francisco Opera patrons a chance to comparison shop. Nicola Luisotti is conducting Wagner’s romantic fable across the street at the War Memorial Opera House through Nov. 9. The glories and challenges of the piece, with its luscious long melodies and riskily thin string textures at the beginning and end, were apparent in both versions. Fisch turned it all into one long, absorbing dream. If it was somewhat shorter on the high-contrast effects Luisotti found, this plush, softly burnished invocation made a listener want the curtain to go up all over again.

A drily antiseptic reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 occupied the middle panel of the program. Hunched over the piano when he was playing and clasping himself when he wasn’t, the boyish soloist David Fray gave off an air of brainy isolation. Like a precocious kid with a chemistry set, he extracted every Mozartean molecule and even found a few fetching combinations, especially in the clearly voiced left hand. But it was an odd experiment all around, lurching from the colorless and odorless to the high Romantic outbursts of his cadenzas.

Fisch played along gamely, but his lustrous moment with the San Francisco Symphony was still to come. Once the piano was safely stored and the audience had taken their turn in the sun-filled lobby at intermission, the lights dimmed for Brahms.