Sunday, March 5, 2017

Conservatory Orchestra: a Weak Account of a Potentially Strong Program

Over the last several years the Conservatory Orchestra of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has built up a reputation of quality to match that of professional ensembles in the Bay Area. When Eric Dudley arrived this past fall to become the group’s new conductor, it appeared that this reputation would be sustained. Sadly, more recent offerings led by Dudley have yielded evidence to the contrary; and last night made a disconcerting case that high expectations were no longer in order.

This was unfortunate, particularly in light of the amount of attention given to rising student talent. The evening began with a performance of “Vltava” (the Moldau), the second piece in Bedřich Smetana’s cycle of six symphonic poems, Má vlast (my homeland). The conductor was Edward Hong, due to graduate at the end of this term and presumably under Dudley’s tutelage. Smetana’s structural plan for “Vltava” involved a detailed musical account that traces the river from its origins in two small springs all the way through Prague, after which it flows into the Elbe, which proceeds through Germany.

Things got off to a good start with the pairs of flutes and clarinets depicting the sources:

from IMSLP (public domain)

The rhythms of the winds are then picked up by the low strings as the primary theme of the symphonic poem is first introduced. Hong maintained an easygoing pace with dynamic contours that smoothly captured the sense of the river’s flow. All proceeded well until winds returned to depict the dancing of mermaids in the moonlight, an entry that seemed to lack both coordination and intonation. After that Hong never quite recovered, although he was still able to maintain the overall sense of flow. Nevertheless, the appearance of Vyšehrad castle at the climax of the piece, which recalls the theme for the castle introduced by the preceding symphonic poem in Má vlast, lacked any sense of “arrival” and seemed to pass as just another sight long the banks of the river. As a result, the overall impact of the piece was noticeably blunted.

Hong was followed by classmate Madeline Hocking, also due to graduate at the end of this term. She was the 2016 Violin Concerto Competition Winner; and she performed Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane” with Dudley conducting the Conservatory Orchestra. “Tzigane” is definitely not a concerto. It is less than ten minutes in duration and can probably be called “Ravel’s Hungarian rhapsody.” He wrote it for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi as a duo for violin and piano supplemented with a luthéal attachment to evoke the sonorities of a cimbalom. The piece was first performed on April 26, 1924, and Ravel’s orchestration of the piano part received its premiere the following October 19.

The printed score of the violin-piano version is seventeen pages long. The first four of those pages are cadenza with accompaniment only emerging on the fourth page. After that the music proceeds into a series of gypsy-like themes with no shortage of sensuous exoticism. The piece is notorious for the demands it places on the violinist. However, when played properly, it can make for a fun listening experience; and Ravel clearly had a chuckle or two when it came to choosing instruments for his orchestration.

It clearly took a lot of courage for Hocking to commit to performing this piece, and one cannot deny that she gave it a good shot. However, the score is a high-wire act, meaning that even the slightest misstep is blatantly evident. In other words anything short of perfection is inescapably noticeable; and there were, indeed, such moments to notice. Had Hocking simply let them pass and focused more on the outrageous spirit of the music, she could still have pulled off her performance; but, unfortunately, her head was too much mired in all of those technical demands. Dudley, for his part, could make the most of Ravel’s orchestration, but not enough to spark the fiery spirit this music demands.

To his credit, however, Dudley was definitely supportive in managing both tempo and balance of dynamic levels. Sadly, this was not the case in his interpretation of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 60 (sixth) symphony in D major. It almost seemed as if he was living for only the fortissimo dynamics in the score, and anything else was mere connective tissue to be traversed. The idea that a dynamic contour should serve as a landscape with only a small number of significant climaxes did not appear to be part of his plan. Thus, when a major thematic episode repeated, one came away with the impression that Dudley’s approach was “Let’s try it again but louder this time.”

There is, of course, the maxim that loud music promotes a loud response. There is nothing like a thundering coda to summon thundering applause from the audience. Nevertheless, there was a prevailing shallowness in Dudley’s overall conception of this symphony. While it is probably true that Opus 60 does not rise to the heights of Dvořák’s later symphonies, it is just as true that it can stand up to a more attentive approach to performance than Dudley was willing to give.

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