Friday, September 7, 2018

Oliver Herbert Joins SFS for All SF Concert

The most elaborate cadenza from the Fitzenhagen edition of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 33 (from IMSLP, public domain)

Cellist Oliver Herbert is no stranger to Davies Symphony Hall. Currently studying at the Curtis Institute of Music with both Carter Brey and Peter Wiley, Herbert is an alumnus of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Youth Orchestra and made his SFS debut in a SoundBox concert at the end of last year. Last night he returned to Davies to serve as soloist in the program for this season’s All San Francisco Concerts, conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), the first full concerts that serve as a prologue to the opening of the subscription season.

His selection for the evening was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 33, entitled “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” This is one of several Tchaikovsky pieces that were inspired by the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (hence the Rococo reference); but the theme is an original one that reflects the eighteenth-century style. Nevertheless, the music itself, both the theme and its variations, is solidly situated in nineteenth-century Russia with almost no suggestions of eighteenth-century Vienna.

Tchaikovsky composed Opus 33 for Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a German cellist who, like Tchaikovsky, was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. Fitzenhagen gave the premiere performance on November 30, 1877 with conductor Nikolai Rubinstein, after which he decided to rework the score, deleting one of the variations, reordering the others, and even swapping the endings of two of the variations. (The Wikipedia page for this composition has a table comparing the two versions.) There are different accounts of how Tchaikovsky reacted; but, as the late Michael Steinberg observed in his notes for the program book, after Tchaikovsky completed his Opus 62 “Pezzo capriccioso” for cello and orchestra, he had Fitzenhagen review the score before sending it off for publication.

A few cellists, such as Steven Isserlis, have made it a point to bring the original version of Opus 33 back into the concert hall and onto recordings; but, for the most part, it is the Fitzenhagen version that gets the most attention. The program book said nothing about which version was performed last night. However, after a perusal of both scores and an effort to recover as much memory as possible, my guess is that Herbert and MTT followed the fold in presenting the Fitzenhagen version.

While this is a more compact account than Tchaikovsky had originally conceived, there is still some sense of strain in the sense that the overall flow tends to overstay its welcome until things liven up in the concluding Coda. There was never any questioning of the technical skills that Herbert brought to his interpretation, which included confident execution of the written-out cadenza passages. However, this is one of the more intimate pieces in Tchaikovsky’s catalog; and there was a disquieting sense that MTT was so influenced by the usual Tchaikovsky bombast that he had not yet homed it on a rhetorical stance consistent with that intimacy.

On the other hand Herbert’s encore selection was a tour de force of intimacy (so to speak). He took a theme that Johann Sebastian Bach liked so much that he used it in a variety of different settings and performed that theme entirely without accompaniment. The theme itself seems to have originated with the Andante movement from a G major flute concerto by Georg Philipp Telemann (TWV 51:G2); but Bach reworked the source enough to make it his own expression. He may have used it in both a violin concerto and an oboe concerto (whose scores have yet to be discovered); but it is best known today as the Largo movement of the BWV 1056 keyboard concerto in F minor, as well as the opening sinfonia for the BWV 156 cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß in Grabe (I stand with one foot in the grave), where the theme was written as an oboe solo played against strings which, in many performances, are given pizzicato treatment. Even without the funereal connotations of the cantata, this is still-center-of-the-universe music; and Herbert’s solo account was so compelling that one barely felt the presence of a concert hall filled to capacity.

The remainder of the program revisited the orchestral selections from Wednesday night’s Opening Night Gala concert. Once again the program began with Franz Liszt’s orchestra version of the first of his four "Mephisto” waltzes; and the intermission was followed by the two George Gershwin selections, the “Cuban Overture” and “An American in Paris.” Seated at a different vantage point, I was in a better position to appreciate Liszt’s imaginative approaches to instrumentation. This is clearly its own composition, rather than merely an arrangement of music that began as a piano solo. I was also more aware of how the composer’s approach to syncopation made it clear that the Devil was having his way with any sense of a traditional waltz.

On the other hand last night’s Gershwin accounts felt a bit too much like afterthoughts. While my new location gave me a better sense of the ways in which the resources for “Cuban Overture” balanced, any trace of Cuban spirit, particularly that of the decadence imposed by American visitors, seemed to have eluded MTT’s reading of the piece. On the other hand “American in Paris” suffered from having too many grand climaxes, almost as if MTT had not really made up his mind what stage of the narrative served as the peak of the overall composition. As a result Gershwin’s inventiveness in both of these pieces got lost in a surfeit of razzle-dazzle suggesting readings of the scores that never acknowledged any structure below the surface. Gershwin clearly knew how to entertain, but he wrote music that deserves more than a superficial approach to mere amusement.

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