02/15/2013 05:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pablo Heras-Casado Leads SF Symphony in West Coast Premiere of Magnus Lindberg's EXPO

Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado returns to San Francisco Symphony this week for four performances beginning Thursday, Feb. 14 through Sunday, Feb. 17. The program begins with the West Coast premiere of Magnus Lindberg's EXPO, a piece that was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and which opened the orchestra's 2009 Season with Alan Gilbert as its newly appointed Music Director. The program continues with Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 featuring pianist Stephen Hough and concludes with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5.

Heras-Casado is one of the most versatile and most sought after young conductors in the world today. Last Thursday night he made his conducting debut at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. He was appointed their Principal Conductor in 2011. It's not often that I am able to catch an artist still in the afterglow of his debut at Carnegie Hall. Add to that energy the rush of his having to fly out of New York the following morning on a non-stop to San Francisco just as an encroaching snow storm was about to bring NYC and other areas of the East Coast to a frozen standstill.


Pablo Heras-Casado. Photo, Jean François Leclercq

"I've been working a lot in this country during the last four years," says Heras-Casado, "so Carnegie Hall was an important landmark for me. It was a very exciting experience and a very important moment, not only because of the debut, but especially for being with my orchestra."

His elegant program opened with Beethoven's Overture to Egmont and was followed by Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 played by Christian Zacharias, concluding with Debussy's Five Preludes and Schumann's Symphony No. 4. I asked Pablo about his participation in programming the concerts -- the selection process when one is the resident conductor of an orchestra compared to that of being the guest conductor with an orchestra such as San Francisco Symphony. He said:

This is something I talk about with a lot of anticipation -- what the orchestra is doing -- one or two seasons in advance. Normally a program is discussed together with the Artistic Administrator of the orchestra, the person who cares about what you want to offer to the orchestra, to the audience and with which you feel comfortable. With San Francisco Symphony, I know the orchestra quite well. I've conducted here for two consecutive years and have done quite a wide selection of repertoire. This being my third appearance, I wanted to bring something different, not only to the audience but something that brings another perspective to my relationship with the orchestra and them with me. It's the same for me with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. I offered a wide selection of music, but also stayed consistent with their needs. I think it worked out very well.

"It feels like our perspective is going to be challenged with your opening selection, EXPO, by Magnus Lindberg," I said. "What can we look forward to in this West Coast premiere of the work?" He noted:

The spirit of the piece will show the orchestra's best qualities," he responded. "It's a great opener for a concert. It's a work I know very well and have already conducted a couple of times. It's an absolutely brilliant piece which Lindberg wrote while he was the Composer-in-Residence for the New York Philharmonic. He composed it when he was in a celebratory mode. EXPO has a very condensed shape. The idiom Lindberg uses is one that connects very strongly with the orchestra's qualities and, in my experience, connects immediately with the audience. It is not a piece that is reflective and subjective. It is very objective. It uses musical language in a very objective way and displays a strong rhythmic spark and excitement. EXPO makes an impression with both the orchestra and the audience.

In other words, a showpiece.

Sharing the spotlight is pianist Stephen Hough playing the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2. Since his last appearance with San Francisco Symphony in 2009, Mr. Hough has appeared with major orchestras around the world and become the Artist-in-Residence with the BBC Symphony. And audiophiles take note! Stephen Hough is a prolific recording artist. This season Hyperion Records is releasing his album of solo piano pieces by French composers and another featuring Hough with the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra in Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 by Liszt. When conducting the piano concertos of either Chopin or Liszt, I asked Conductor Heras-Casado if he noticed a difference in how he relates to the pianist.


Stephen Hough, Pianist. Photo, Sim Canetty-Clarke

Hough said:

The Piano Concertos of Liszt and Chopin are very different, very distant. In the Chopin, you are absolutely just accompanying all the time. Chopin is more traditional in having an orchestral Introduction, and then the soloist. It's practically the only existing -- let's say "role" -- for the orchestra in this concerto. The orchestra accompanies in a very subtle way, adding some little episodes. In the case of Liszt, the orchestra and the pianist are in constant dialogue. It is the most opposite idea and concept of what a piano concerto is. For me, even though they are not performed as often as other Romantic concertos -- like those of Schubert, Brahms or Schumann--the First and Second Piano Concertos of Liszt are the best concertos ever written. They are very condensed and not very long. It's about the concision of the form they use, the dialogue between the piano and the orchestra. The writing for the orchestra is so perfect and so modern for its time. Its structure is not conventional in that the piano is not just a big soloist. At times the piano is also part of the orchestra. It is very strong, very powerful language from Liszt.

Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 inevitably proved to be the composer's most popular work. Written in 1944, while staying at what amounted to a retreat place for composers in the city of Ivanova, Prokofiev's house mates included Dmitry Kabalevsky, Aram Khachaturian and Dmitri Shostakovich. On Tuesday, 6 June 1944, a few days prior to his arrival, the Allied forces had arrived in Normandy: D-Day. Prokofiev finished his symphony by the following month. The work premiered at the Moscow Conservatory on Saturday, 13 January 1945. Those in attendance had to filter out the noise of celebratory gunfire announcing the Red Army's successful push into Germany, known as the Vistula-Oder Offensive. The events and its historical associations have shadowed the Fifth Symphony ever since. But do contemporary audiences require the nudging of a historical context? Or can we simply enjoy the excellence of the work and not summon up a nationalistic response?

"I think audiences today don't need any historical or nationalistic context," responded Heras-Casado. He added:

Because it is a great masterpiece and, on its own, one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th Century. I don't think the conditions that existed around the time the symphony was created add anything special to the piece itself. It is one of the most perfect and glorious symphonic examples of the Twentieth Century.

"In listening to the first movement, the Andante," I said, "with its two separate themes running simultaneously, it occurs to me that a conductor needs to be like a master charioteer in order to keep the team running as a unit and head straight through to the Finish line. What is your insight on maintaining that level of clarity and precision?" Heras-Casado said:

Managing tensions and keeping them alive to the end is one of the most important things we do as conductors. You have to know the whole structure of the movement and have an instinct for keeping its coherence and unity. Those contrasting sections exist in many symphonies, in the most classical way. Keeping with the transitions from one moment to the next is key. It's something that comes with experience -- knowing the length of the movement and not having any weak moments by maintaining the tension from one moment to the next. Almost any big symphony of the 19th or 20th Century has these kinds of challenges. Of course there are some which are especially challenging in that way, like most of Mahler's symphonies, and the Bruckner symphonies -- managing the flow, the magic and the theatrical way. You can find the same problems and challenges with Schumann, Brahms and Mendelssohn. It's something inherent in the symphonic form.

Coming up on Feb. 22 through Feb. 24, Maestro Heras-Casado travels with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to the Konzerthaus in Dortmund, then to the Philharmonia in Essen, and finally to the Kölner Philharmonie at Cologne. Click here to stay in touch.