Almost a hundred years ago, Stravinsky defibrillated classical music. He shocked it back to life, saving it from the deathly grasp of romanticism. And in a more literal sense, he gave it back a strong pulse that shaped throbbing rhythmic patterns rather than melodic ones. Charles Dutoit, the legendary Swiss maestro who conducted the SF SymphonyThursday night, in a program that alternated on both sides of this defibrillation, favors a mellow approach. He won't impart a strong meter if it isn't there. This worked best in the 20th century pieces in his program: Both Stravinsky's post-rite of Spring Le chant du rossignol or Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra possess a more explicit rhythmic spine than the more lyrical Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.
There, Dutoit's slower pace seemed to muddle things a bit, despite an eloquent performance by the young soloist Arabella Steinbacher. Steinbacher enters both outer movement of the concerto on a languorous lower string, delivering a rich, breathy, almost viscous sound. That's where her big tone and unadorned violin voice sings at its best. The concerto was most definitely pleasant -- Tchaikovsky lush melodies orchestrated over a vigorous brass polonaise will ensure that -- but needed a little kick.