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Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden made his debut leading the San Francisco Symphony Wednesday (2/12/14) Photo by Bert Hulselmans.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Making his debut Wednesday with the San Francisco Symphony, conductor Jaap van Zweden stepped onstage with his shoulders hunched, his eyes beaming like lasers, a little scary. He looked like a compacted ball of energy as he made a beeline for the podium, a man with a mission.

What a dynamo, this stocky fellow with the shaved head.

The opening Mozart overture seemed to leap from a pressure cooker. A Sibelius concerto presented itself with bracing sweep. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 was off-the-charts. The Dutch conductor, 53, has generated increasing buzz in the U.S. since 2008, when he became the Dallas Symphony's music director, and one could hear why; this was exciting stuff. What a shame that Wednesday's program at Davies Symphony Hall repeats only once, Friday. One would like to hear what this conductor and orchestra could do together over an extended engagement.

From the top, then.

Mozart's Overture to "The Abduction from the Seraglio" announced itself with a crisp bang. Van Zweden pressed the tempo like a race car driver through the Presto, as if aiming for the outer limit where precision of detail withstands velocity. The orchestra nearly pulled it off. And the Andante was lovely; here, van Zweden's emphatic gestures gave way to something much more subtle, like pushing and patting a wall of sound into its desired shape.

Also an accomplished violinist (he was appointed concertmaster of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra when he was 19), the conductor knows how to appraise talent on his instrument. Wednesday, he introduced an impressive Dutch virtuoso to the San Francisco audience: Simone Lamsma, whose whispered entrance swiftly gave way to densely rich low notes and vista-sweeping Finnish melody.


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Her long cadenza in the opening Allegro was super: statuesque Lamsma played with surging lyricism and rock-solid command of the composer's famous technical flights. Returning to the ensemble, she rushed her tempo just a bit toward the movement's conclusion, but did we really care?

And while it's often said that Sibelius's concerto pits the soloist against the orchestra, van Zweden unearthed the dialogue within the score. The Adagio became a graceful meeting place, where soloist and orchestra continually emerged from and receded into one another; Lamsma and the horns seemed to trace a rainbow through the ensemble with their unison passages. More generally, the performance's blend and balance was excellent. In the buzzing finale, one could hear the many nuances of Lamsma's part, even during those passages when she played pianissimo alongside the full orchestra.

And then came Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.

The orchestra sounded remarkable: the opulence of brass and horns, announcing the "Fate" theme of the Andante, giving way to layers of lush strings and delicate streaming winds. Van Zweden's dynamic control was keen, his tempos supple. Textures had depth and weight -- but then the orchestra floated like a balloon through Tchaikovsky's waltz-like interludes.

Amid this expressive unity, one also noticed so many sectional and individual contributions: a spirited cameo for the second violins, and gorgeous, grieving statements from principal bassoon Stephen Paulson. The pizzicato Scherzo was a spectacular ensemble performance: the big string orchestra sounding like a single guitar. The finale was the victory statement: brilliance of sound, like a swirling storm, arriving in stages, with van Zweden driving the tempo like a daredevil once again. This time, the orchestra nailed it. Holy smokes.

Bring this guy back.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

San Francisco Symphony

Jaap van Zweden, conductor; Simone Lamsma, violin
When: 8 p.m., Friday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$156; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org