On Friday evening the San Francisco Symphony welcomed two guests on the Davies Hall stage – conductor Roberto Abbado (newphew of Claudio), and German violinist Veronika Eberle, whose performances of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto this week mark her San Francisco debut. 

To kick the performance off, we heard some excerpts from Turandot – not Puccini’s, but Busoni’s far less often performed Suite Op. 41. Three of the four selected movements did enough to get some heads rolling, Berlioz-style, and the “Nächtlicher Walzer” came up with a sinuous and shimmery melody or two. Once again it was refreshing to hear something not entirely canonical at Davies Hall, and to see that someone other than Mahler, for example, was writing at the beginning of the 20th century! Nevertheless, the selected movements added up to a surplus of occasional pomp and lacked rich narrative. Something seemed to be missing, and it might just have been the play itself: all of the action behind the processional clamor. 

Although the name “Schumann” definitely rings with the glow of the “canonical”, his Violin Concerto doesn’t. Surprisingly its last and only other San Francisco performance took place almost twenty years ago, in 1999. Violinist Joseph Joachim, Schumann’s and Brahms’ friend, never performed the piece publicly during his lifetime, its worth as a masterpiece was (and perhaps remained, ever since) highly questioned, and its 1937 publication (originally intended for 1956, 100 years after composition), rose from a cloud of mysterious smoke that somehow involved Joachim's great-niece Jelly d'Arányi. This ambiguity might drape the piece in enough Romantic mystery to attract all kinds of performers, but the musical material might be a bit too mysterious for most virtuosos to handle. Given that it was Eberle’s debut, one might have expected – and been accordingly greeted with – a typical virtuosic warhorse such as good ol’ Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn. Yet perhaps she knew that there would be enough of the latter in the second half, and that Joshua Bell is still busy performing the first all over the world. So Eberle chose something, in a way, much riskier. 

For a listener hearing the piece for the first time, there are no grand melodies to cling on to immediately; the beginning itself, despite its somberness, seems to wordlessly emote rather than tell, and the violin’s Bachian entrance seeks feveriskhly to communicate an important message, although it doesn't seem to know what it is. If Brahms’ orchestration, perceived lack of melodies, and uniquely awkward difficulties (for all instruments, but, as string players often complain, “especially for strings”) have all too often been the supposed reasons why listeners and critics condemn(ed) his music to sounding a bit too much like “muddy waters,” well, Schumann’s poor concerto would stand no chance. Eberle, drawing in the swelling energies of the orchestra, immediately channeled a deeply introspective mind space as soon as the music began, and this might have worked to help externalize the piece’s knotty messages. But throughout, especially during the first movement, I found myself silently protesting, like some typical 19th-century critic, “This is too innig for the concert hall!” (Innig meaning inward – always being the top word used to describe Schumann’s music.) One of the violinists in the orchestra clearly adored the piece, for every little twist and turn of the musical narrative seemed to reflect itself on her countenance and etch itself on her body. But how could such subtleties come through more publicly? And were they even supposed to? Regardless, the movements’ strenuous arpeggios, which Eberle played with remarkable dexterity, cut through the thick powerfully. 

By the second movement, moreover, the warm glow of the first cello melody started to melt the ambiguous ice around the piece’s edges and encouraged a sharpened synthesis between the soloist’s private mind space and its external surroundings. But while Eberle’s subtle expressivity here found a cozier home, and her stunning tone flourished, the orchestra did not seem to shadow her perfectly. While principal cellist Michael Grebanier played his solo with a warm, gentle tone suited to the friendly B flat major sonority and all its springy associations, one might have wished for the pulsating offbeats – so clearly emulating a heartbeat – to come out more, especially as they intertwined with the violin’s melody to form a divine love duet. The tricky transition between the second and third movements could also have been more gradual – if only Abbado followed Eberle more closely as she led. The third movement tied together most successfully as our soloist danced her way through the graceful, sometimes folklike melodies, almost as preparation for the Mendelssohn. 

His Scottish Symphony inevitably always finds itself a delight to listen to, and sure enough, the famous scherzo and finale drew out enough lighthearted swinging and foot-fapping from listeners. The last movement even linked itself back to the Schumann finale somehow. Curiously enough, however, the very end felt anticlimactic and did not seem to draw as much excitement from listeners as the previous movements (there was no standing ovation – which is fine, there needs not always be one! But something in the energy was a bit off). 

Perhaps the Mendelssohn was not the best match for the concerto? While the program seemed to include all the right components for a successful performance, it seems that it needed a shake or two for all of them to properly mix together symbiotically. It was Eberle’s remarkable musical subtleties that ultimately stood out. Hopefully she returns to San Francisco soon and shows a different side of her artistry – maybe with a little Brahms?