Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Conservatory Orchestra gave its first of two performances of its first season program under the baton of its new conductor Eric Dudley. (The second performance will take place at 2 p.m. this afternoon; those interested in ticket availability can consult this concert’s Click4tix event page.) David Grahame Taylor, who will be completing his graduate studies with composer David Conte this academic year, was given the world premiere of “Within a Forest Dark,” the composition that won him the first prize in the 2016 Highsmith Competition. Cellist Evan Kahn, currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Chamber Music with cellist Jennifer Culp, which he should receive in the spring of 2018, performed as soloist in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 107 (first) cello concerto in E-flat major. Both of these performances took place before the intermission, which was followed by Johannes Brahms Opus 98 (fourth) symphony in E minor.
Kahn is definitely a cellist deserving of serious listening. Opus 107 was composed in 1959. Joseph Stalin, whose tyrannical authoritarian rule had given Shostakovich no end of grief, had been dead for six years; but Shostakovich’s own sense of self was still afraid of his own shadow (and, considering that post-Stalinist Soviet authority was only marginally more lenient than it had been under Stalin, probably with good reason). Nevertheless, this concerto, which he had written for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, covered a wide range of rhetorical stances, with an opening gesture, based on the composer’s initials (DSCH), that suggests that some of the prankish mojo of his youth may have been recovered. That broad diversity of emotional expression both permeates the entire concerto and is, at the same time, distilled into a four-and-a-half-minute cadenza that precedes the concluding Allegro non troppo movement.
Kahn took an absolutely fearless approach to this extensive breadth of emotions. He and Dudley seemed to have a solid agreement on tempo selections that would enhance each rhetorical position, rather than smother it; and Dudley masterfully carried the many outrageous interjections coming from the different sections of a moderately-sized ensemble. In the midst of this roller coaster ride of expressive tropes, the cadenza still stood out as the core of the concerto. Kahn had prodigious technical command when it came to taking on and mastering the many challenges that Shostakovich has written for Rostropovich, but there was also a clear sense that Kahn had been seeking out his own personal point of view. The result was as much an exhilarating opportunity to take in a truly exciting concerto as it was a look into the cellist finding himself through learning to play this music.
At the risk of mixing metaphors, the composition of “Within a Forest Dark” involved skating onto some rather thin ice. Drawing a title from the opening phrase of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (which is also the opening of the entire Divine Comedy) could just as easily be a sign of pretentious folly as one of bold ambition. The same could be said of using Toru Takemitsu as a point of departure. The boldest move, however, was to honor Takemitsu’s spirit by beginning with the emergence of barely audible wisps of sound out of total silence.
For too many concert audiences, this is the moral equivalent of waving a red flag at a bull. Audiences can barely keep back their nervous coughs during the opening measures of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, let alone anything written over a century later. Back in June of 2009, when I was just beginning to build up my personal craft of writing about the performance of music, I wrote a piece entitled “The Unbearable Being of Silence.” The text was an examination of audience reaction to Peter Serkin’s attempt to play the music of (you guessed it) Takemitsu.
If last night’s audience was no more gracious to Taylor than their “predecessor audience” had been to Serkin, at least Taylor had the courage of his convictions; and Dudley was never shy about embracing those convictions. The result was that those listeners whose mind provided a good “noise filter” could appreciate Taylor’s gift of subtlety through some highly imaginative approaches to sonority. The overall plan was one of gradually increasing energy that would recede back to its origins. The language through which this plan was established was not always readily accessible, but this is music that invites multiple listening experiences for those who want more than the usual “meat and potatoes.” It deserves far more attention than a “first contact” can muster; and we would do well to hope that the score for “Within a Forest Dark” does not languish on a shelf now that its premiere has been given.
All this made for an impressive first half of last night’s concert. Unfortunately, the second half turned out to be a great disappointment. Dudley seemed to think that Brahms’ expressiveness would best be served by an onslaught of decibels. Things got loud after only a few measures, and the intensity only receded in a few brief moments. Even during those soft periods, however, the overall counterpoint was hopelessly muddied by a lack of attention to overall balance. At least those who had been so discomforted by Taylor’s subtle use of dynamics were back in their comfort zone, and the raucous cheers that followed the final measure made it clear that they were very happy in that zone.