Thursday, January 26, 2017

Pianist Thibaudet Brings Delightfully Sparkling Ravel to Davies

This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gave the first of this week’s three subscription concerts. The conductor was Lionel Bringuier, currently Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, who made his SFS debut in February of 2014. His program followed the usual overture-concerto-symphony format. The concerto soloist was pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, a frequent visitor to Davies, playing Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto in G major.

Thibaudet is one of the most reliable of the SFS guest artists, and he was definitely in form this afternoon. Not only did each of his rapid-fire passages sparkle with a dazzling light; but he also understood that such passages were textural, rather than thematic. Indeed, with the exception of the almost excessively lyric solo that he took at the beginning of the second movement (which he endowed with neither too much nor too little expressiveness), one might almost think that Ravel conceived of his entire concerto almost as a mural of diverse textures, some of which blend while others clash with each other.

One of the reasons that Thibaudet was so effective in presenting this concerto is that he has a keen sense of George Gershwin’s approach to jazz, which informs his understanding of how Ravel refracted that approach. It is important to remember that Ravel’s concerto was written a little over half a decade after both “Rhapsody in Blue” and Gershwin’s more extended concerto in F major. Indeed, while it is clear that Gershwin’s concerto is in the major mode, Gershwin himself called it simply “Concerto in F;” and, almost as an explicit nod to Gershwin, Ravel called his concerto, “Concerto in G.” Note that verb “refracted,” though; Ravel was not trying to follow in Gershwin’s footsteps but to blaze a new trail with the benefit of the light that Gershwin’s music had shed. The result is one of the landmark piano concertos of the twentieth century; and Thibaudet, working as effectively as could be imagined with Bringuier, knew exactly how to establish not only the significance of this music but all the delights that come from listening to it.

Bringuier programmed this concerto to follow another equally skillful act of refraction. Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta.” Composed in 1933 (only two years after Ravel’s concerto) this “overture” selection similarly entailed a composer applying his personal stamp to source material he had discovered. In Kodály’s case that material came from his ethnomusicological field work with fellow composer and compatriot Béla Bartók. Indeed, it is almost impossible to listen to some of the rapid-fire passages for strings, particularly at the beginning of “Dances of Galánta,” and not think of how Bartók turned that same device to his own purposes in his later orchestral writing. Furthermore, the palette of instrumental sonorities is as diverse as Ravel’s; and, where Ravel had a tendency to work with one texture at a time, Kodály had a gift for overlaying separate textures to create new ones. In this respect Bringuier’s technique as a conductor could not have been better in leading the attentive listener through those textures, revealing how Kodály had synthesized them.

The symphony selection on the program took the audience back to Ludwig van Beethoven with his Opus 60 (fourth) symphony in B-flat major. Those looking for “unifying traits” would have found them in the last of the four movements, where the intense dynamics of rapid-fire string work paralleled Kodály’s approach at the very beginning. However, this is also a symphony of sharp contrasts between extremes; and Bringuier knew exactly how to register those contrasts without taking any of those extremes to excess. This was a stimulatingly fresh approach to a Beethoven symphony that deserves more attention than it seems to get, and Bringuier could not have been a better advocate.

Tickets are still available for the remaining two performance of this program, and this is definitely an event that is not to be missed.

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