SF Symphony review: Fisch's fervent debut

Asher Fisch
San Francisco Chronicle


By Joshua Kosman

The gods of musical scheduling are a playful and unpredictable bunch, who like to trick you into thinking you're being shortchanged - then make it up to you in unexpected ways. This week's conductor switch at the San Francisco Symphony was a case in point.

I'm sure I wasn't the only person looking forward to the Symphony debut of Jaap van Zweden, the Dutch conductor whose tenure with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 2008 has garnered lavish, even extravagant praise. But earlier this month van Zweden pulled out, citing an unspecified scheduling conflict, and was replaced by Asher Fisch, the Israeli-born principal guest conductor of the Seattle Opera.

Consolation prize? That's what you think. Fisch's Symphony debut in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday afternoon was a virtuoso display of fervent, eloquent musicianship, one that took familiar standards of the Romantic repertoire and made them sound fresh and alluring all over again.

The magic began immediately, with the opening measures of the Act 1 Prelude to Wagner's "Lohengrin." In contrast to Nicola Luisotti's edgy, impatient reading across Grove Street at the San Francisco Opera, Fisch adopted an expansive, shimmery approach to this music.

The opening violin chords sounded bright and mysterious, as if promising more to come - and Fisch then made good on that promise with a slow and impeccably controlled buildup in intensity across the piece. This was one of those frustrating moments when a performance of an overture is so fine it leaves you restless to hear the whole opera.

Instead, Fisch followed up after intermission with an even more potent reading of Brahms' Fourth Symphony. Like the Wagner, this was again predicated on lush orchestral textures - the woodwinds and brass sounded superb throughout - and a deftly managed rhythmic palette.

The first movement, whose antiphonal phrases can so easily go off track metrically, sounded firm but fluid, with a hint of hushed splendor in the approach to the second theme.

Bruce Roberts' forceful horn solo got the slow movement off to a resolute but graceful start, and Fisch brought a perfect balance of pomp and swingy humor to the third movement, finishing it off almost in the mode of a barn dance.

The afternoon's only longueur came in between these two pieces, when French pianist David Fray returned to Davies with a blunt and uncharacterized performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat, K.482. Fray's playing was small-toned and fussy in the outer movements, and alarmingly short of lyricism in the central slow movement.

If not for Fisch, who brought vigor and rhythmic clarity to the first movement especially, the whole thing would have been even duller. Here's hoping he comes back again soon, without having to step into another man's shoes.