Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma made her debut with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in February of 2014, performing Jean Sibelius’ Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor under the baton of Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, who was making his SFS at the same time. Lamsma had been van Zweden’s protégé, and it was not hard to come away feeling that the performance was one of close collaboration. Last night she returned to Davies Symphony Hall to perform with James Gaffigan, currently Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony. This time the concerto was Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 63 (second) concerto in G minor; and, once again, the performance left a distinct impression of kindred spirits at work.
Gaffigan is, for those who know their SFS history, no stranger to Davies. He served as Associate Conductor between 2006 and 2009, during which time he had a particular taste for bold undertakings. While the Prokofiev concerto is relatively free of the thorny dissonances encountered in Prokofiev’s music, his capacity for rich instrumentation with adventurous sonorities was still with him when he composed this concerto in 1935. This makes partnership between soloist and conductor particularly critical, since all of those sonorities from the orchestra deserve as much attention as the virtuoso violin work. Gaffigan’s technique in balancing all of these resources could not have been better, even keeping the bass drum controlled enough that one could appreciate its eccentric rhythms without those beats thundering over everything else.
As the soloist Lamsma was a dynamo of energy. One could almost assume that she had choreographed her body language as part of her personal technique for taking on the trickiest of the passages that Prokofiev had composed. However, she was equally at home in finding just the right rhetorical delivery of the more lyric passages. The program note by the late Michael Steinberg calls attention to parallels with the score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. This was composed in that same year of 1935; and, for all we know, Prokofiev was working on the two pieces in parallel. At the very least this would explain why the middle Andante assai movement could just as easily have served to accompany a pas de deux or why the rhetoric of the concluding rondo movement evokes the sarcastic approach that Prokofiev’s music took to developing Mercutio’s character. (This is where the bass drum work is most impressive.)
The “overture” for this concerto was the original version of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” This was one of Mussorgsky’s earliest pieces, but it was roundly rejected as defective by his elders and his contemporaries. As a result it was never performed during his lifetime and only came to public attention when Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov “repaired” the score after Mussorgsky’s death. For most of the twentieth century, it was assumed that this version was Mussorgsky’s music, even though his original version was performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Society after musicologist Georgiy Orlov discovered the original manuscript in the late 1920s. However, Rimsky-Korsakov’s version had become the “definitive text;” and, when it came time to provide music for Fantasia, Leopold Stokowski’s tinkering with that score had more to do with what he know of Mussorgsky’s orchestration techniques than with the original score (which he never saw).
For those who have internalized Rimsky-Korsakov’s version, there is real shock value in encountering what Mussorgsky actually wrote; and Gaffigan was not shy about letting all those shocks register. Indeed, there were episodes during which it felt as if too much was going on at the same time, leaving one to wonder whether the original score required a bit more attention to balance. Nevertheless, there were viscerally raw qualities in last night’s performance, suggesting that Mussorgsky’s contemporaries must have felt he was being too vulgar. Considering how much that “vulgar” adjective pops up over so many different generations of modernism, there was thus something impressive about how Mussorgsky’s version still has the power to shock. Gaffigan clearly understood this and made it a point not to pull any punches. The distinction was so impressive that anyone hearing it will probably now believe that Rimsky-Korsakov’s version does not deserve to have Mussorgsky’s name on it, since it has distorted that composer’s spirit beyond recognition.
After all the modernism in the program’s overture and concerto, Gaffigan then turned to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the program’s symphony, K. 425 (“Linz”) in C major. C major is a decidedly assertive key, and Mozart balanced his strings with pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets. He even has this octet perform as a choir responding to one of the themes in the Allegro spiritoso of the opening movement. As a result, last night’s string section was reduced but not down to the sort of “bare bones” ensemble that would suit many of the earlier symphonies. Gaffigan’s account as a vigorous one, and he provided himself with enough strings to match the bolder statements from the winds and brass.
Having traversed the usual plan, Gaffigan then programmed his own encore with a performance of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Richard Strauss’ Opus 54 one-act opera Salome. Curiously, while this is the one time in the opera when the singers do not have to compete with the size of the orchestra that Strauss required, the instrumentation for this dance requires only a subset of the complete resources. As a result, some of the more outrageous sonorities (such as that of the heckelphone) are missing. Nevertheless, Gaffigan chose to conclude his program in the spirit with which he began it, with the power of music to shock.
Clearly, when the opera is performed, the striptease of this dance does not need any help from the orchestra. On the other hand the concert version has its own titillating powers, and Gaffigan was not shy about unleashing them. The result was as vigorous as his approach to Mozart but (obviously) in an entirely different ballpark. Beyond the rhetorical intent, however, this music made a powerful case for the fruits of masterful powers of orchestration. Gaffigan knew how to make every one of those talents register with the attentive listener, and SFS could not have been better at responding to his techniques. Last night definitely went out with a bang, but it was a bang that will be remembered for its merits beyond its vulgarities.