On the second night of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra’s tour in San Francisco, a somewhat progressive and diverse program was presented. An altogether successful night, Fabio Luisi brought out some top-notch playing from the DNSO. One I looked forward to hearing was their interpretation of Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony. A symphony that I would describe as aurally challenging with its perplexing tonality, the orchestra delivered a superb rendition. However, the highlight of the night was undoubtedly Arabella Steinbacher’s performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with which the night started.

The introduction to the concerto was convincing from the woodwinds with oboes and clarinets singing out the beloved theme beautifully. There were initial timing issues when the violins entered with their semiquavers, but these were very soon resolved; the rest of the introduction set the stage wonderfully for Steinbacher’s entrance. Steinbacher’s playing was thoroughly flawless, executing the technical demands of the opening movement with precision and care. There was excellent vibrato colouring the thin and crisp sounds from the high registers and running passages that were thoughtfully cared for with rubatos at just the right moments. There were instances where I wondered if the DNSO could have given more force to the sforzandos but all in all, an impressive opening. The Larghetto opened with muted strings cautiously and sweetly introducing the theme of the movement. Again, Steinbacher was wonderful to watch as she carried the melody up to angelic heights, then let it meander down like a falling feather. The lyrical song was abruptly replaced by the Rondo finale. Altogether different in its setting, with chordal intervals as the theme and an upbeat tempo, this is a sprightly movement where the orchestral strings take part in asserting the motif. Despite this, Steinbacher was still heard clearly in the tutti section, partly thanks, I’m sure, to the magnificent resonance of her “Booth” Stradivarius. On the whole, a sensational delivery of the concerto.  

Strauss’ Don Juan is a tone poem which paints a character. A flurry of sixteenth notes opened the story, surprising audiences who were just settling down after the intermission, rather effectively. Large brush strokes of moods kept altering and one soon become used to the idea that they can’t hold on to a particular theme for too long before it changes again. There often were episodes that typically evoked a passionate love scene with heavy high strings, followed by more upbeat sections with horns perhaps depicting his pride of his conquests, conveying the nature of Don Juan cleverly. Instrumental solos throughout the piece were thoughtfully performed, contributing to a really beautiful delivery of the piece.

Nielsen’s Symphony no. 6, his last, is a work that is raw, jarring and complex. The texture is almost entirely polyphonic and there aren’t easy themes that ears can attach themselves to on a first hearing. Nielsen himself said that “Each instrument is like a sleeper whom I have to wake into life,” and this is what was reflected at various times during the Sixth. Running passages from strings, birdcalls from the woodwinds, brass instruments cutting through almost any texture because they can and percussion instruments interjecting what would have a been a lyrical moment. The tonality isn’t fixed on a key for any significant time but rather continuously developed through the length of the symphony. There were episodes where through chromaticism one could hear the phasing away of the previous tonality and the establishment of a new one. It’s quite a ‘heady’ piece, each theme making one ask where this is leading or how does that particular sound gels with another. I particularly enjoyed the second movement Humoreske with wind instruments gracefully dancing against the sporadic glissandi from the trombone. The third movement Proposta Seria, in contrast, was darker in mood and with a chromatic tonality, it offered no lasting comfort or reassurance. The finale is a set of variations and quite disjointed in its progress with the closing solo bassoon note feeling like an appropriate comical ending, giving audiences a relieving giggle before a thoroughly fitting round of applause for a successful night.