Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the London-based Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) presented the first of the two programs it had prepared for its visit to San Francisco as part of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Great Performers Series. Their conductor was Thierry Fischer, currently Music Director of the Utah Symphony, a position he has held since 2009. Last night marked Fischer’s first appearance under SFS auspices.
The soloist for last night’s program was a familiar face on the Davies stage, French cellist Gautier Capuçon performing Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken VIIb/1 concerto in C major. Little is known about this concerto, particularly since the manuscript was lost for almost 200 years, rediscovered only in 1961 in Czechoslovakia. Prior to that discovery, the only known Haydn cello concerto was Hoboken VIIb/2 in D major, a stately but diverting work composed in 1783. The C major concerto is most likely earlier, probably composed between 1761 and 1765. It is refreshingly vigorous when compared with its successor, and its rediscovery has been a significant boon to cellists.
Cello soloist Gautier Capuçon (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)
Capuçon has never been shy when presented with an opportunity for vigorous rhetoric. He launched into the first measures of his solo as if he wanted to light a fire under the seat of every listener in Davies. Yet, for all of that intensity, it was clear that he also appreciated Haydn’s capacity for wit; and his initial roaring fire magically transformed into a host of dazzling sparklers, including the sparkles in his own eyes as he engaged some decidedly contemporary gestures in the service of his phrasing.
In establishing the overall delivery of the concerto, Fischer scaled back his string players considerably (although not enough to give a clear account of the parts for the two oboes and the two horns, which, fortunately, were given relatively to say by the composer). What was particularly interesting was that, in this more intimate setting, much of Capuçon’s interactions were channeled through Concertmaster Duncan Riddell. As a result, Fischer’s contribution to the overall delivery was relatively minimal; and he never seemed to mind his absence from the spotlight. Over the course of the entire evening, it emerged that this is a conductor whose top priority is getting the most out of his musicians, bringing their contributions to the center of attention, rather than dwelling on his own “leadership.”
Consequently, the Haydn concerto emerged as a feast of music-making, rather than simply a showcase for the soloist’s technical skills (which were present in great abundance) or the conductor’s “vision of the whole.” Indeed, Capuçon’s love of music-making also emerged in his encore selection. This was Pablo Casals’ arrangement of the Catalan Christmas song and lullaby “El cant dels ocells” (the song of the birds). Capuçon played this with an ensemble of five cellos and one bass, opting for chamber music, rather than solo display. Christmas may be long gone by now, but the encore selection was still a magical one.
The reduced resources for Haydn were also present in the opening selection, Henri Büsser’s 1907 orchestration of Claude Debussy’s four-hand piano composition Petite Suite, which he completed in 1889. This was the least satisfying selection of the evening. However, at least part of the problem may have involved Büsser trying to overplay his hand at Debussy’s expense, often requiring the ensemble to cope with thick textures that conceal the lilting rhythmic patterns. Fischer was clearly trying to make the best out of the cards that Büsser dealt him; but, to continue that metaphor, the presentation never rose above the level of an unfilled inside straight.
On the other hand the second half of the program was devoted entirely to Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 score Michel Fokine’s ballet “The Firebird.” This is one of Stravinsky’s richest orchestral scores, and Fischer was clearly on solid ground when it came to ushering the full RPO ensemble through the full breadth of the composer’s sonorities. This was a reading of Stravinsky’s score in which every note from every instrument signified, and Fischer clearly grasped the nature of each act of signification. At the same time, his overall command of tempo served effectively in advancing the ballet’s narrative, even if that narrative appeared only in the heads of those who had seen the ballet.
As if the abundance of orchestral sonorities from Stravinsky were not enough, Fischer offered, as an encore, the “Farandole” movement from the second suite that George Bizet composed based on the incidental music he composed for Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne. This music is as rousing as it is familiar; and it was impressive that, after such a full-throated account of Stravinsky, the ensemble had enough energy to ignite one last round of fireworks. For those fortunate enough to have been in Davies, last night was definitely one for the books.