SAN FRANCISCO -- Take-away images from Thursday's San Francisco Symphony program: first, conductor Pablo Heras-Casado's swimming gestures, coaxing deliciously sensuous textures from the orchestra in works by Lully and Adès; then, soloist Leila Josefowicz's power-chording through Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, a slashing performance of fierce rhythm and steely control.
Those images summarize the contrasts in this exceptional program, which repeats through Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall. However, the most welcome surprise came at the concert's end: a performance of Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony that was both fierce and sensuous, so freshly conceived that this warhorse of the repertory re-emerged as a thoroughbred out for a thrill-ride.
Hats off to the 35-year-old Spanish conductor for his sensitive and adroit readings of the various works, and for bundling such diverse compositions in a manner that often allowed them to illuminate one another. It's no wonder that his career is taking off with major orchestras; he brings clarity and insight to the repertory -- and excitement. (And he returns next week with more works by 42-year-old Adès and 19th-century Mendelssohn; in each, he sees masterful control of materials and a shared fascination with the Baroque.)
The program began with a pair of instrumental excerpts from Lully's opera "Armide," which dates to 1686. The Overture's five-part string writing emerged with order and charm, a lilting shapeliness; the Passacaille (a.k.a Passacaglia) seemed powered by potent stillness, hovering amid the motion of Lully's variations.
Answering Lully, in effect, was Thomas Adès's "Three Studies from Couperin," gracefully orchestrated variations on harpsichord works by the Baroque master. The British Adès (who attended Thursday's performance) is known for casting a rhapsodic eye on landscapes of controlled chaos or eerie desolation. But his "Studies," from 2006, are something different: purely lovely, delicate and sensuous.
"Les Amusemens" was elegant and slinky, marked by the throaty murmurings of low-register winds and the occasional soft bongs of bass marimba. "Les Tours de Passe-passe" was silvery-bright, dancing in the puckish spirit of Stravinsky's own Baroque fascinations. (Think "Pulcinella.") "L'me-en-peine" was a study in quiet anguish, with steady ornamentations and a churning drama that didn't seem all that far from flamenco. And through all of this, there was a sense that conductor and orchestra were enjoying something ingenious and new, taking pleasure in breathing the notes to life.
It took some time for Stravinsky's concerto (composed in 1931) to hit its mark. That happened in the Bach-inspired aria of the third movement, a keening rhapsody as played by Josefowicz, whose control throughout the piece was almost always impeccable: huge splayed chords and double-stops, glinting finger-flicks of harmonics, acrobatic swoops and slides. But the finale was the dazzler: here came those power-chords and that rhythmic ferocity unrelenting. Looking around the orchestra, pressing its members to keep up, Josefowicz essentially became co-conductor here. And if Pete Townshend ever retires from the Who, there's this violinist who could step into the gap.
After intermission, Heras-Casado turned to Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3, which dates to 1842, though it was famously inspired by the composer's 1829 trip to Scotland. Here, as with Adè's "Studies," each movement opened into a new dimension of personality.
The Introduction and Allegro were as ominous and gusty as the Scottish Highlands. The Scherzo galloped with a new day's brightness. The Adagio was sweet and noble, too. The Finale buzzed with triumph, whooping horns and all. And throughout, there was crispness and control, attention to detail and delicacy, alongside broad melody and mad tempos. It was infectious. This warhorse hasn't taken a ride like that in a long while.
Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor; Leila Josefowicz, soloist
When: 8 p.m. Saturday,
2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave.,
Tickets: $15-$156; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org