Friday, April 13, 2018

SFS Debuts for Both Conductor and Soloist

Visiting conductor Daniel Harding (photograph by Julian Hargreaves, courtesy of SFS)

Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented debut performances by both conductor, Daniel Harding, and piano soloist, Paul Lewis. Neither is a stranger to San Francisco. Indeed, this was not Harding’s first appearance in Davies, since he led the Staatskapelle Dresden in October of 2010 when they gave a Great Performers Series concert. Lewis, on the other hand, is no stranger to Herbst Theatre. He has appeared there for San Francisco Performances (SFP) three times, the most recent being almost exactly two years ago, when he accompanied tenor Mark Padmore (after having given a solo recital for SFP the previous month).

Lewis’ appearance with Harding took up the entire first half of this week’s SFS subscription program. They performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 37 (third) piano concerto in C minor, which was composed in 1800. This concerto is sometimes regarded as overblown, and one does not have to look far to find performers who treat it that way. Yet for all of its massively broad strokes (which a fertile imagination might see as consigning the eighteenth century to the dustbin of history), there are nuanced techniques that look back on the eighteenth century as much as forward into the nineteenth. (Recall Beethoven once remarking that he was composing “for a later age.”)

Indeed, while I have often approached Beethoven compositions as his way of showing that he could outdo the imagination and wit of his former teacher, Joseph Haydn, Opus 37 seems to be reflecting back on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, perhaps even with some sense of gratitude. Recall that each of Mozart’s piano concertos could be distinguished by his use of wind and brass resources, using different combinations to reflect different rhetorical dispositions. From the very beginning, Beethoven’s C minor concerto (a key that fostered some of Mozart’s most imaginative writing) uses the winds to bring unique shadings to the themes introduced by the strings.

As a result, while listeners can become used to lengthy orchestral introductions before the piano soloist gets down to business, the nuanced shadings of the introduction for Opus 37 provide no end of fascination for the attentive listener. Furthermore, as if coloration were not enough, Beethoven also deploys some highly effective shadings of dynamic levels, several of which are startlingly abrupt, while other are more nuanced. The result is that the conductor who really understands what Beethoven is up to has a significant workout before the pianist sounds his/her first notes.

Harding is definitely one of those conductors. If anything, he was too good at his job. Lewis’ first appearance almost felt like an intrusion, rather than the “main attraction” stepping into the spotlight. Indeed, while his technical approach to the score, including the cadenza that Beethoven wrote out in 1809, was always solid, it never got beyond feeling a bit like an anticlimax after the orchestra had enjoyed such a good time with the many devices Beethoven had prepared for them. Even in the introspective solo passages that opening the second movement or in the playful coda of the third, Lewis never seemed to make a solid case that his solo work mattered as much as what the ensemble was doing; and it is hard to imagine that Beethoven would have wanted the piano to sound as if it were some kind of secondary partner!

Nevertheless, Harding’s capacity for execution that was as expressive as it was precise could not have served him better for the single work on the second half of the program. This was Richard Strauss’ final tone poem, his Opus 64 entitled “An Alpine Symphony.” Those who took the trouble (and time) to read the full description of instruments required for this composition could fully appreciate just how demanding the task of resource management would be. (The rest could probably figure it out just by looking at the stage.)

For all the thickness of the fabric that Strauss had woven, Harding consistently demonstrated a keen understanding of how any individual thread would, at different times, serve either foreground or background. One could thus appreciate not only the sheer quantity of all of the parts but also the intricacy with which those parts were assembled. This is the sort of composition that will put any conductor to a rigorous test, and Harding emerged from that test with the highest possible marks.

Nevertheless, Strauss created Opus 64 as a tone poem, rather than an Alpine summit that the ambitious conductor would have to scale. Therein lies the problem, which is that there is little poetry to be found in what emerges as little more than a vast panorama of special effects. The depiction of the natural world has appealed to many composers, even some from pre-Classical times. As might be expected, over the course of a few centuries, the results were bound to be mixed. By all rights, a composer writing in 1915 (the year in which Opus 64 was composed) would have had the benefit of figuring out what worked and what didn’t, thus arriving at satisfying results based on sound judgment.

Sadly, Strauss does not come off as that kind of a composer. If anything he almost seems as if he is trying to shake off the ghost of Richard Wagner, whose lexicon of leitmotifs for Der Ring des Nibelungen took in forces of nature as well as portrayals of the characters. One almost wonders to what extent Strauss struggled with Opus 64, writing a passage and then wondering whether Wagner would have done it better.

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