Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, cellist Gautier Capuçon returned to serve as concerto soloist with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. SFS has had to wait almost two years for a return visit from Capuçon. His last appearance was in May of 2015, when he performed Edward Elgar’s Opus 85 cello concerto in E minor with Charles Dutoit as guest conductor. This time he contributed to an all-Russian overture-concerto-symphony program.
The concerto selection was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 107 (the first of two) concerto in E-flat major, composed in 1959 and dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the world premiere on October 4 of that year with Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (now the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra). This has been a good year for Opus 107, since Evan Kahn, currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Chamber Music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, served as soloist in a performance by the Conservatory Orchestra this past October. There is so much to engage the attention of the serious listener in this concerto that this music deserves even more frequent exposure.
By 1959 Joseph Stalin had been dead for six years, but Shostakovich was never able to get out from under the terror wrought by Stalin’s oppressive authority. The middle Moderato movement of Opus 107 probably makes the best case that Shostakovich could never free himself of being haunted by Stalin’s ghost. If that movement summons up the darkest of shadows, then the four-and-one-half minute cadenza that follows almost embodies Shostakovich’s desperate search for a candle to light. Nevertheless, the bleak pessimism of the core of this concerto is framed by signs of Shostakovich trying to recover some of the prankishness of his youth, complete with yet another reference to his own initials (DSCH).
One could not have asked for a better account of the solo work in this concerto than what Capuçon delivered. Furthermore, this involved engagement with the full ensemble, often with one-on-one exchanges. Thus, if there was desperation in Capuçon’s account of the cadenza, context was established through a back-and-forth account of the principal Moderato theme between Capuçon and Robin Sutherland on celesta.
Indeed, the entire concerto revolves around exchanges between solo voices from the ensemble, particularly a single horn (the only instrument from the brass section) and individual winds. The opening give-and-take between soloist and winds was a bit off balance, but that one flaw was almost immediately detected and corrected by MTT. This is a concerto in which the orchestra matters just as much as the soloist. Capuçon clearly realized this, making for yet another indelibly memorable visit to the Davies stage.
MTT chose Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 74 (“Pathétique”) symphony in B minor for the final element of the “standard formula.” This gave the impression that the only proper response to Shostakovich’s darkness would be Tchaikovsky’s darkness. The sense of parallel paths was quickly evident, even if Tchaikovsky’s path proceeded through an entirely different landscape. What was important was that MTT was as attentive to balance and flow in his Tchaikovsky has he had been in his Shostakovich.
Once again, the contributions of individual instrumental voices mattered significantly, even if they were cast against a far richer ensemble sound. Furthermore, MTT conveyed a clear sense of how each movement was structured around a single moment of climax that rose significantly above its surroundings. One could also appreciate the dark implications of the descending scale pattern that concludes the first three movements and then pervades the fourth. MTT’s tempo choices facilitated the ability to appreciate such relationships between whole and parts. The result was an account of the symphony in which every moment signified, but it was always clear which moments signified more than others.
What made the program unique, however, was the choice of “overture.” The selection was a suite by Mikhail Gnessin (his Opus 41) entitled Evreiskiy orkestr na balu u Gorodnichevo (the Jewish orchestra at the Ball of Nothingtown). It was based on incidental music that Gnessin had composed for a production of the play The Government Inspector, a no-holds-barred satire about bureaucracy by Nikolai Gogol. The play was originally published in 1836, but in 1926 Vsevolod Meyerhold conceived a particularly surreal approach to staging it. (Danny Kaye would later star in a 1949 Technicolor musical comedy film entitled The Inspector General and based on the same source.) Gnessin prepared his suite of eccentric dances for Meyerhold’s staging; and, according to some introductory remarks that MTT gave, the pianist for that production was Shostakovich.
MTT managed to capture Gnessin’s capacity for eccentricity, making the music a somewhat poignant preparation for Shostakovich’s concerto. After all, 1926 was a time when one could still get away with poking fun at power without worrying about the secret police carrying one off into the night. As might be guessed, Meyerhold did not fare very well after Stalin began to flex his authoritarian muscles. He was arrested, tortured, and finally executed on February 2, 1940, one of the many victims of Stalin’s Great Purge. In that context Gnessin’s effervescent score evoked far better times, while the Shostakovich concerto reminded us that those times could not be recalled without almost heartbreaking poignancy.