S.F. Symphony review: Clarinetist Bell rises to a challenge
When it comes to the clarinet, there doesnt seem to be anything Carey Bell cant do. And all of it comes into play in Carl Nielsens demanding Clarinet Concerto, which was the vehicle for Bells dazzling solo turn in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday afternoon with the San Francisco Symphony under conductor Herbert Blomstedt.
Bells seven-year tenure as the Symphonys principal clarinetist (he succeeded the late David Breeden in 2007) has been a joyride for the orchestras audiences. Weve learned to be attuned to the particular virtues of his contributions to a range of symphonic repertoire - his recognizable instrumental sound, at once light-footed and muscular, and the crisp yet flexible precision of his execution.
But Thursdays performance offered the most extensive helping yet of Bells artistry, aside from the Mozart concerto in 2008. It did not disappoint.
Here, in a luxuriantly unbroken span of 25 minutes of music, were all the splendors that listeners have been getting in smaller doses, from rapid-fire instrumental virtuosity to a rich and soulful expressive vein. If the daunting difficulty - on both the technical and interpretive levels - of this showpiece held any terrors for Bell, the evidence was nowhere onstage.
Nielsens 1928 concerto, the last major work of his career, was conceived as one in a series of character sketches for the members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, whose personalities he knew well (only the concertos for flute and clarinet actually got written). Its dedicatee, Aage Oxenvad, was by all accounts a mercurial character, given to unpredictable fits of anger within an essentially warm and agreeable temperament.
So the concerto traces an aptly unpredictable path. There are sections that are so sweet-tempered and lyrical as to be almost cloying, beginning with the ingratiating and rhythmically square opening theme.
Those in turn are interspersed with wild, aggressively untrammeled outbursts in which the harmonic scaffolding that is Nielsens constant reference point seems at risk of blowing apart altogether. By the time the concerto coasts into its closing measures, which are marked by an ethereal sense of serenity, the audience feels properly whiplashed.
Together, Bell and Blomstedt helped bring out the emotional logic of this journey without ever stinting on its essential weirdness and volatility. Bell used his instrument to lend an elegant, singing cast to the concertos lyrical passages, then imparted an air of ferocity to the more unhinged passages. Perhaps Bells finest moments came in the concertos two cadenzas - the first shadowy and ominous, the second pugnacious and full of hooting jabs.
After intermission, Blomstedt led the orchestra in a superb performance of Schuberts Great C-Major Symphony, a reading infused by deep love and understanding of the score (if nothing else, Blomstedt established his mastery by taking the repeats indicated in the music).
The first movement sounded especially fervent, helped along by Blomstedts brisk tempos and robust, gleaming contributions from the brass. Oboist Jonathan Fischers plangent solo got the slow movement off to a buoyant start, and the finale was as fearless and focused as Ive heard it.
San Francisco Symphony: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $15-$140. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. (415) 864-6000. www.sfsymphony.org.
Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicles music critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @JoshuaKosman