Thursday, May 11, 2017

Dutoit Goes for the Grand Bold Sounds and SFS Musicians Deliver

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall Charles Dutoit gave the first of four performances of the second program he prepared for his two-week visit to the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). If last week’s program surveyed the vast landscape of dynamic levels mapped out by Hector Berlioz’ Opus 5 setting of texts from the Requiem Mass, this week’s program was one of bold assertiveness, pushing the dynamic levels of the full ensemble to their full capacity. Ironically, this was even true of the concerto selection by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, K. 482 in E-flat major, performed with piano soloist Emanuel Ax.

Those who divide their time between SFS and the Philharmonic Baroque Orchestra (PBO) know that historically-informed performances of Mozart explore his wide capacity for expressiveness over a relatively narrow dynamic range. PBO conductors are sensitive to the limitations of the instruments of the eighteenth century, and the best of them have mastered the technique of achieving a broad scope of expressiveness within the constraints of those limitations. Dutoit is one of those conductors who appreciates the value of refitting that scope of expressiveness when his instruments have a wider dynamic range.

Thus, while he cut back on the number of strings that he deployed for the rest of the program (all from the transitional period of the nineteenth century into the twentieth), he kept his string section strong enough to match Mozart’s rather strong commitment to winds and brass: one flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and two trumpets (along with timpani). K. 482 was composed at the end of 1785, the same year in which he had already composed K. 466 in D minor and K. 467 in C major, both of which also explore the potential of a wide dynamic range. In addition, K. 482 was the first piano concerto to include clarinets in the wind section, replacing the oboes with a wider spectrum of sonorities. It is also worth noting that, while Mozart took the piano part, it appears that the conductor at the first performance was Antonio Salieri. Notwithstanding the mythology of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, it is not difficult to imagine Mozart whispering, “Let’s have some fun with this” to Salieri just before the performance began.

Ax is definitely a pianist who knows how to have fun with his Mozart. In this case he even provided his own cadenzas, since Mozart never documented any. I see from my records that this was the first Mozart concerto I listened to Ax play with SFS back in 2007; and, on that occasion, I was not yet prepared for the uninhibited abandon that Ax could summon without ever compromising his technical skills. Last night the lightning struck again in the same place, and Dutoit proved to be the perfect source of accompaniment for this energetic spring of productivity.

What is particularly fascinating about this concerto is the minimality of its thematic content. For the most part the intensity of its expressiveness resides in the unceasing energy of its transitional passages and the tightly-knit textures that the piano provides while different motifs bounce around among that breadth of instrumental resources. Only in the second movement does the rhetoric settle into a melody unfolding with almost operatic lyricism (no surprise, since this was also the time when Mozart was working on his K. 492 opera The Marriage of Figaro). Nevertheless, this is primarily a “show-off” concerto in which the instrumental ensemble gets to strut a fair amount of stuff along with the soloist. Ax and Dutoit appeared to be perfectly matched in sharing this attitude and making the best possible case for it for the attentive listeners in Davies.

The rest of the program then allowed the ensemble to strut even more stuff through a generous range of styles. The second half provided another perspective on the “kinship” between Manuel de Falla and Claude Debussy that pianist Javier Perianes had explored in his recital this past Saturday. If Perianes had surveyed excerpts from Falla’s score for the one-act ballet “El amor brujo” (love, the magician), Dutoit selected three dances from the music for The Three-Cornered Hat, a two-act ballet created by Léonide Massine for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Like much of the full score, these dances are based on traditional Spanish forms; and Dutoit knew how to deliver just the right balance between the coarse folk style and polished symphonic delivery.

Debussy was then represented by his 1905 tone poem “La Mer” (the sea). This is one of those pieces that can never be properly accommodated through even the best recording technology. Only by sitting in the presence of an actual performance can one appreciate just how many independent centers of activity are all churning away at the same time in Debussy’s score. (Igor Stravinsky may never have admitted it, but it is hard to imagine that his own skill as this technique could not have been traced back to his familiarity with Debussy and his music.)

Dutoit’s command of balancing his resources excellently clarified the prodigious diversity of Debussy’s mix. At the same time, he was also well aware of the grand gestures that rely as much on the mass of the overall sound as on all those churning details. In other words Dutoit understood perfectly how to make performance work both in-the-large and in-the-small at the same time. “La Mer” was the final selection of the evening; and it could not have demonstrated better Dutoit’s capacity for delivering a “grand finale.”

At the other end of the program he began with the suite of three instrumental movements that Jean Sibelius had provided for a pageant about Karelia. This pageant was realized as a series of tableaux, so there was no real connection between the music and any narrative thread. These were simply three pieces, each of which could stand alone on its own merits. Given that this was music that tended to get a fair amount of radio coverage during my student days, I was more than a little surprised to see that SFS was performing it for the first time. Back in those days, many of us recognized this music as the “mother lode” that Dimitri Tiomkin must have studied assiduously when he was the King of Soundtracks for the Hollywood Westerns. (It was probably not Sibelius’ intention for his tambourine part to sound like jangling spurs.) These days Tiomkin is pretty much forgotten, and his source of inspiration seems to have faded with him.

Much of the impact of Sibelius’ suite derived, again, from Dutoit’s command of dynamic contours. The composer had a particular knack for the gradual crescendo (another source of inspiration for the Hollywood set); and Dutoit consistently knew how to pace that effect. At the same time he also knew how to endow each instance of that device with its own brand of freshness. This is a relatively modest offering in the Sibelius canon. However, it serves up enough charm to make the case that Sibelius himself probably took great delight in creating it; and Dutoit knew how to convey the satisfaction of that delight to last night’s audience.

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