Yesterday afternoon in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Symphony Parnassus, conducted by Music Director Stephen Paulson, presented the fourth and final program in its 2016–17 season. The guest artist for the program was pianist Elliot Wuu, currently a pre-college scholarship student at SFCM studying with Yoshihiro Nagai. He has garnered considerable attention, particularly through winning the first prize in the 2015 Hilton Head International Piano Competition for Young Artists. This fall he will enter the Juilliard School on a full scholarship around the time he turns eighteen.
His selection for yesterday afternoon was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 43 rhapsody structured as 24 variations on the last of the 24 caprices in Niccolò Paganini’s Opus 1 collection, a piece that, itself, consists of eleven variations on a theme and a finale. While Rachmaninoff is generally regarded as quintessentially Russian, he knew that his tsarist sympathies would not go down well after the Revolution; and he took his family to New York in November of 1918. He had no trouble arranging a busy performing schedule, as well as a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company; but this left little time for composing.
Aside from a short piano piece written in 1931, Opus 34 was his first major effort. He completed it in August of 1934 and played the premiere performance the following November in Baltimore. He played it with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Since that time the piece has never suffered from a lack of performance opportunities; and, as might be imagined, it does particularly well on the competition circuit.
Nevertheless, while the solo work in this piece may provide burgeoning talents with any number of opportunities to display their technical skills, it often feels as if only a few of today’s soloists, whether they are “on the rise” or have “arrived,” have the sensitivity to recognize that Opus 34 is music, rather some kind of pianistic pentathlon. Fortunately, Wuu is one of those pianists who has that sensitivity; and the attentive listener quickly recognized that he was as interested in endowing every phrase with its own expressive identity as he was in jumping through all the hoops that Rachmaninoff had originally dreamed up for personal display. Even with the occasional rough patches coming from the ensemble (which is, after all, a “community” orchestra), yesterday’s performance of Opus 34 emerged as an absorbing journey through Rachmaninoff’s abundant dispositional attitudes towards Paganini’s caprice, highlighted by the technical fireworks from a young pianist with a promising future.
While those who know their Rachmaninoff are probably familiar with his relation with the Philadelphia Orchestra and both Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, the role of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the popularity of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition tends to be less well known. Thanks to the current crop of recitalists, most music lovers know that Mussorgsky wrote this piece as a suite for solo piano. Less known is that the music was not published until 1886, five years after his death; and the publication was the result of editing by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
However, the man behind the popularity of this music was actually Serge Koussevitzky. Unlike Rachmaninoff, Koussevitzky tried to make a go of it in post-Revolution Russia, accepting the position of conductor of the newly named State Philharmonic of Petrograd. However, he left the Soviet Union in 1924 and never looked back. Through his Concerts Koussevitzky series in Paris, he became a leading champion of new music; and through Pierre Monteux he first came in contact with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). One of the composers Koussevitzky championed in his concert series was Maurice Ravel, and he commissioned Ravel to orchestrate Pictures for a BSO concert he would conduct in 1922. Thus, while Mussorgsky’s piano suite was first heard in Russia, the world premiere of Ravel’s arrangement, now one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertoire, was first played in Boston.
As had been the case with Rachmaninoff’s Opus 34, there were a few awkward moments from the ensemble during the performance. However, for the most part, this was a well-conceived interpretation of this orchestral warhorse. Paulson knew how to endow each of the “picture” movements with its own characteristically expressive stance; and, for the most part, Ravel’s strategic allocations to solo instruments came off effectively. Most important, however, was Paulson’s treatment of the final “picture,” “The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev).” Ravel clearly wanted to pull out all of the stops for a grand conclusion (probably because Mussorgsky had written a finale that seemed to require at least three hands); and the resulting orchestral version has become almost the prototypical cliché of orchestral grandeur.
Fortunately, Paulson appreciated that a grand ending does not begin by firing all guns at once immediately. He knew how to interpret this section as a gradual crescendo with its own set of episodes and ascents to “lesser peaks.” Thus, when the time finally came to ascend to the final measures, the ensemble still had energy in reserve to establish those measures as the one climax to rule them all. There was no better way to shine a bright light on the conclusion of not only this composition but also the journey through the four-concert season.
The one disappointment came at the beginning with Stefan Cwik’s latest new work for Symphony Parnassus. Entitled “Luz Dorada: Music After Three Paintings by Eduardo Rodriguez Calzado,” the music seemed designed to complement the relationship between the visual and the musical that Mussorgsky had explored. However, Cwik’s piece was a single-movement composition in three episodes, whose corresponding paintings were displayed on large computer screens during the performance. The other key difference was that, while each of the Viktor Hartmann images that Mussorgsky interpreted involved a representation, Calzado’s three paintings were abstract.
While Cwik was clearly establishing his own path through the relationships between image and sound, he probably could have learned a thing of two from Mussorgsky. Most important was the brevity through which Mussorgsky translated the impression from the image into an impression through music. Cwik seemed to parallel this approach in his opening section; but, just as the listener came to appreciate the relationship between Calzado’s use of color and shape and Cwik’s corresponding use of musical resources, the score ventured into a contrasting section, which could have been good for a ternary form structure but left Calzado’s painting just hanging there (pun intended). Thus, by the conclusion of “Luz Dorada,” one could appreciate the effort that went behind the experiment; but the results themselves left much to be desired.