On Saturday night, the San Francisco Symphony joined forces with conductor Juraj Valčuha and violinist Gil Shaham for a program both surprising and sure to please an array of different listeners. Franz August Julius Schreker's Chamber Symphony enjoyed its first SFS performances... even though the world première took place just little over a century ago! While it is easy, and even logical, to throw around praise like confetti for this kind of (uncharacteristically) daring programming, it is more worthwhile to ask why more beautiful but lesser known works such as Schreker's don't get a chance to see the light of Davies Hall. Nevertheless, this well-balanced piece, lengthier than the usual first piece on a program but still concise, proved unique and self-sufficint in its merit – and for those more skeptical, the occasional whiff of Straussian color and Mahlerian magic must have felt familiar, and like an appropriate precursor for the Barber.

Gil Shaham © Luke Ratray
Gil Shaham
© Luke Ratray

It is hardly surprising that Shaham's performance of the Barber Violin Concerto was the glowing gem of the evening. From the very first phrase he eased into the music with such naturalness that one could barely perceive him to be playing the violin at all: rather, he was sighing elegant melodies and breathing spring-like flourishes. Even the more intense moments of the rather pastoral first movement stemmed from relaxed grace, a looseness that few performers even of his high caliber manage to master so seamlessly. Clearly, this piece was an old friend, as seemed to be some of the SFS performers, with whom Shaham occasionally exchanged knowing smiles and cocked eyebrows. The lushness of the slow movement stayed within the pastoral realm, as Shaham never crossed the border from lyrical to saccharine. The last movement, of course, was a riot, played with such dexterous sparkle, red-blooded excitement and electrifying playfulness that it made the air vibrate. At some point Shaham even threw back his head in silent laughter, making it impossible for audience members, serious and casual, experienced or inexperienced in the unspoken etiquette of the silent concert hall, not to react with smiles or even suppressed chuckles. There is nothing more delightful than to see a performer who simply wants to play, and to share his inner need to externalize what is so obviously native to his heart. 

This proved itself, after the borderline riotous applause, even truer in the encores he gave (something that does not often happen at Davies Hall!). Most touchingly, Shaham's gentle, bygone-era sensibility compelled him to reach out to SFS's concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, and mouth and gesture something to him that unambiguously looked like an invitation to play a duet. Barantschik quickly (and perhaps gallantly, he thought) declined, leaving the stage all for Shaham. The soloist did not necessarily look disappointed but perhaps saddened that his colleague did not want to join him in what seemed to me like a lively attempt at spontaneous music-making of the type one would have seen in a 19th-century salon. So our lone soloist gave us another chance to enjoy his sumptuous tone and elegant contouring of phrases – even more directly, without the orchestra – this time with the second movement from Bach's Third Partita. After yet another standing ovation, the generous musician, who clearly was in such an open-hearted mood, tried to get Barantschik to join him again, and when that failed, continued his extemporaneous reciting with the famous third movement of the same Partita, which surely eveyrone in the audience, including those who did not know its title, had heard all too frequently. This too he played with playfulness and elasticity. 

What could follow such delightful music-making? It was unlikely that yet another performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony would bring anything new. And yet, under Valčuha's light touch, and with his appropriately quick tempos, the orchestra played with such steadily accumulating energy that it would have been impossible for a listener immersed even in the sourest mood not to surrender to Beethoven's irresistible insistence for exhilarating joy. The famous second movement brought the right amount of somber contemplation and yearning before all the celebrations could start. But the Seventh, leaving no loose ends untied, seemed nothing like its conventional "canonical" self; it might have been the electricity from the first half, but the old felt new, and the new familiar.