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Neale works a bit of magic to bring Haydn to center stage
Conductor finds right touch to balance program

San Francisco Chronicle

November 28, 2003

By Joshua Kosman


One of the reasons Haydn's symphonies don't show up more often on orchestral programs is that their size makes them hard to position within a conventional lineup. They're too meaty for a curtain-raiser (except when the program is ostentatiously all meat, like Tuesday's concert by the Berlin Philharmonic), but a little too slender to occupy that weighty final spot usually reserved for something big by Brahms or Tchaikovsky.


There are ways around this, though, and in his deft return to Davies Symphony Hall on Wednesday night to conduct the San Francisco Symphony, Alasdair Neale found one. He simply stared the problem down.


Leading a reduced but sturdy ensemble in Haydn's Symphony No. 103, the "Drumroll," Neale expanded the music's emotional and dramatic range to full headliner status, all without sacrificing anything in the way of intimacy, tenderness or wit. It was an impressive bit of artistic legerdemain.


Admittedly, the "London" Symphonies—that remarkable final stream of a dozen compositions with which the elderly composer and an enthusiastic British public paid mutual tribute to each other's sophistication—sit more easily in the spotlight than most. They're broad-scaled, public utterances, written with a robust solidity that gives them a sense of presence.


Still, it took a performance as canny and responsive as Wednesday's to keep the program from feeling unbalanced.


Neale, who spent 12 years as the Symphony's associate conductor and now leads the Marin Symphony, was making his first appearance with his old orchestra since stepping down in 2001. All his familiar virtues were again in evidence, particularly the trademark combination of expressive lyricism and rhythmic crispness.


In the first movement, launched with dry-eyed alertness by timpanist David Herbert, Neale negotiated smoothly between the brash rhythmic byplay of the Allegro opening and the coyly charming second theme, with its waltz-like lilt. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik's dexterous violin solo crowned the variations of the second movement, and the finale, with its sly wit and slightly herky-jerky phrases, made a captivating conclusion.


The first and less satisfying half of the program was devoted to French music, beginning with composer Marius Constant's 1988 orchestration of the Ravel piano classic "Gaspard de la nuit." This turned out to be one of those cases where a difficult task is successfully dispatched without ever making it clear why it needed to be tackled in the first place.


Through most of the score, Constant finds ingenious ploys to render Ravel's utterly idiomatic keyboard textures in orchestral terms. Swirling celesta-and-harp filigree reflects the glittery piano writing of the original, and there are strokes like the contrabassoon opening of the third movement, "Scarbo," that are pure genius.


But unlike some of the classic piano-to-orchestra transformations—beginning with Ravel's own treatment of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and continuing from there—this version never adds much to its source. Even in Neale's fluid, urgent rendition, the listener kept thinking back fondly to Ravel's piano writing.


Before intermission, Elmar Oliveira joined the orchestra for a tenuous and ill-tuned performance of Saint-Saëns' Third Violin Concerto. Neale drew wonderfully lyrical accompaniment from the orchestra, especially at the beginning of the gently rocking slow movement, but the performance overall never took off.


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