New Zealand conductor Gemma New appeared in an all-Tchaikovsky program with the San Francisco Symphony Wednesday, July 10, at the refurbished Frost Amphitheater in Palo Alto. The well attended outdoor concert drew an appreciative, if unsophisticated, crowd of admirers, some of whom decided to ignore protocol and crunch cellophane in the quieter moments of the evening’s scores. As for Ms. New, she sports an athletic demeanor on the podium, graceful and demonstrative, even conducting the solo passages that make the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony its colorful, fateful self.
The concert opened with the familiar Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s 1878 opera Evgeny Onegin, Op. 24, a piece whose pomp carries nice work for the SFO brass section and especially the cello-laden middle section. In this scene, our eponymous hero meets Tatyana at a Petersburg court ball, this soon after the death of friend Lensky, so the pageant of the occasion finds its foil in personal grief. The SFO seemed a bit reluctant to warm up to this piece (with the exception of the trumpets), and some intonation problems also ensued. Nevertheless, the audience found pleasure in Tchaikovsky’s dance rhythms and songful melodies, and they settled in for the Violin Concerto.
Virtuoso Gil Shaham (b. 1971) appeared on stage for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, a work whose immense popularity belies the sheer hostility it provoked at its premiere in 1879. Shaham and New decided to perform the uncut edition of the score, which meant a degree of repetitive phrases in the last movement that many artists tend to delete. Shaham, however, managed to infuse passion and intimacy into his punishing part, which often had him sailing into harmonic’s troposphere or murmuring in subdued tones against some whirlwind accompaniment. As an assisting voice, Ms. New did well, allowing Shaham to control the tempos and covering his gracious playing and affecting tone with a velvet glove. New seems to favor codas as her main means of galvanized expression; otherwise, her tempos and phraseology remain, as I expressed it to my companion, “serviceable but pedestrian.” I did find the G Minor Canzonetta movement genuine and affectionate, and the first movement cadenza from Shaham held us in thrall.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 (1888), retains its reputation as a “fate symphony,” since the opening motif unifies all four movements in a minor, funereal mode that will, however, evolve into a triumphant E Major at the conclusion. Despite what I found to be plodding, unimaginative phrases in three of the movements, the second movement, marked Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, I found the most successful, a well mounted expression of melancholy touched by inner nobility of spirit. The French horn passages as well as those by the accompanying woodwinds kept the B Minor sensibility of tragedy moving without drag or false bathos. For the other movements, rife with opportunities to – as Zorba well expresses it – “cut the rope,” Ms. New let them pass with four-square gestures that seem to me banalities and platitudes. Although the march rhythms marched and the waltz rhythms waltzed, I awaited some sudden, grueling outburst of anguish, paroxysms of cosmic yearning that Koussevitzky, Mravinsky, and Mengelberg (despite his egregious cut in the finale) had taught me to relish. Nope. The audience, however, rose – they had even begun to applaud at the last movement fermata – in self-congratulatory approval. And the half-moon shone upon us all.