French cellist Gautier Capuçon (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)
Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Stéphane Denève returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to give the first of this week’s three subscription concerts. Instead of following the usual overture-concerto-symphony formula, he inserted a concerto among three strikingly diverse tone poems. The concerto soloist was cellist Gautier Capuçon, also returning to Davies, where he had performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 107 (first) cello concerto in E-flat major with SFS a little over a year ago. This time the concerto selection was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 33 (first) cello concerto in A minor.
Composing this piece in 1872, Saint-Saëns decided to structure it as a single continuous movement. When we think about this approach, we tend to associate it with Franz Liszt’s only piano sonata, completed in 1853, which had a similar single-movement structure. The association would not be out of place. Saint-Saëns admired Liszt’s music, coming to know him personally when Liszt served as organist at the Église de la Madeleine in Paris.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the score for Opus 33 is practically boiling over with intense rhetoric. Both Capuçon and Denève were clearly on the same page when it came to establishing such a rhetorical stance. Their reading barreled its way through Saint-Saëns’ fiery allegro passages, easing up on the pace only for the delicate Allegretto con moto minuet, played on muted strings, that establishes the concerto’s mid-point.
Saint-Saëns is often tarred with the same brush as Liszt when it comes to accusations of prioritizing spectacle over all other musical values. Nevertheless, as is the case with the Liszt piano sonata, there is clearly a cerebral side to the score’s well-wrought foundation. The challenge in performing both Liszt and Saint-Saëns is to convince the listener that there is more to the music than mere display. With attention to detail that matched their rhetorical vigor, both Capuçon and Denève not only convinced but did so with all the panache that French rhetoric merits.
It therefore seemed appropriate that they continued to join forces for Capuçon’s encore selection. This was probably Saint-Saëns’ best known music for solo cello, “Le cygne” (the swan) from his The Carnival of the Animals suite. Denève conducted Paul Vidal’s arrangement of this movement for cello, harp, and strings. The sublime stillness of this brief encore provided the perfect “cooling down” from the fiery rhetoric of the Opus 33 concerto.
There was considerable diversity in the three tone poems with regard to both date and style. The most familiar of these was Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” According to my records, my last encounter with this piece in Davies was in October of 2012, when Vasily Petrenko presented it as visiting SFS conductor. Once again this is music that comes close to the brink of being little more than spectacle, and there will probably always be conductors that hurtle themselves over that brink.
Fortunately last night Denève was not one of those conductors. He appreciated how much detail Respighi had penned into his score, whether those details involved the raucous play of children among the pines of the Villa Borghese or the full force of Caesar’s army approaching Rome on the Appian Way. By bringing all those details to the attentive listener, that listener could appreciate that this music was more than ostentatious display for its own sake. Rather, it was a well-conceived and disciplined celebration of the full breadth of rhetorical expression enabled by a large orchestra. One might almost say that the music for Caesar led the way to John Williams’ music for the Empire in Star Wars, but Denève made it clear that Respighi was working from a plane at a level to which Williams was never able to rise (or possibly just has yet to do so).
Denève also rose to the challenge of presenting the first SFS performance of Guillaume Connesson’s “E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare” (the river appears clear in the valley). This is basically a landscape composition inspired by Giacomo Leopardi’s poem “La quite dopo la tempesta” (the calm after the storm) from his Canti Pisano-Recanatesi collection. As in the Respighi tone poem, there is considerable attention to the representative capacities of musical detail. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that all of that detail was more than could be managed on a “first contact” experience. This is music that can only establish familiarity to the listener through multiple listening experiences; and it would be a bit disconcerting (not to mention unfair) if this music were to be placed back on the shelf for an indefinite period of time following this week’s performances.
Far more accessible was the opening selection, the three-movement tone poem “Escales” (ports of call) by Jacques Ibert. The ports involve sea travel between Rome and Palermo, the coastal Tunisian cities of Tunis and Nefta, and Valencia in Spain. In this case it is no difficult matter for the attentive listener to “get” all of the geographic references. However, they are delivered in a package that owes a good deal to Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Emmanuel Chabrier, and, for that matter, Saint-Saëns for inspiration.
Perhaps Denève intended this as a lightweight opening that would balance the “heavier” Respighi that concluded the program. He certainly gave a thoroughly sensitive account of the score, particularly when it came to serving up the subtle shifts in dynamics. Nevertheless, it was hard for the attentive listener to avoid the sense that this was formulaic music in play, even if the number of formulas involved was more than one usually encounters.