Friday, July 19, 2019

Impressive SFS Debuts by Conductor and Soloist

Conductor Brett Mitchell and violinist Blake Pouliot (from the event page for this concert)

As previously announced, the two “serious” concerts being performed by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) as part of the Summer with the Symphony events at Davies Symphony Hall are both introducing new conductors and new soloists. At the first of those two concerts last night, the conductor was Brett Mitchell, currently Music Director of the Colorado Symphony. His soloist was the young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot, currently pursuing a Professional Studies Certificate at the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles.

Pouliot’s concerto selection was Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 in E minor, which was about as bread-and-butter as a rising violin talent could offer. His appearance, on the other hand, was more consistent with American Idol than with traditional SFS attire. However, appearances can be deceptive; and, after a few minor difficulties with the first salvo of rapid-fire triplets following the first statement of the opening theme, Pouliot consistently delivered a solid account of all remaining virtuoso demands. Just as importantly, he knew how to take command of the slower passages; and his soft dynamics were enough to make any attentive listener sit up and take notice. Furthermore, if his attire was a matter of “presentation of self,” his playing consistently embodied a finely-honed relationship of agreement between conductor and soloist. The result was that, for all of the familiarity of this concerto, there was an infrastructure of in-the-moment spontaneity that made this particular partnership of soloist, ensemble, and conductor one for the books.

The audience was clearly not going to leave for intermission until Pouliot provided an encore. He gave a solo performance of his own arrangement of the Irish tune “Aislean an Oigfear,” which serves as the melody for the poem “The Last Rose of Summer.” (Was his choice motivated by the fact that Mendelssohn’s Opus 15 is a solo piano fantasia on this tune?) The arrangement took on a variety of innovative technical devices, but it was the lyricism of the tune itself that stole the show. Pouliot is definitely a violinist to watch, however deceiving his “stage presence” may be.

Mitchell framed the Mendelssohn concerto with two selections by Hector Berlioz, both enjoying the same level of general familiarity as the concerto. The second half of the program consisted entirely of the Opus 14 “Symphony fantastique” (fantastical symphony), while the “overture” for the program was the “Marche hongroise” (Hungarian march) from the Opus 24 “légende dramatique” (dramatic legend), La damnation de Faust (the damnation of Faust). Opus 14 was given a solid interpretation, accounting for the many expressive techniques that Berlioz conjured up to plumb the depths of a deranged (possibly through drugs) mind. What was important was that Mitchell never overplayed his hand, giving free rein to the rhetoric while keeping the vast instrumental resources strictly under control in the service of that rhetoric.

The real surprise came with the “overture.” In the overall plan of Opus 24, this almost serves as “incidental music” between the vocal selections that unfold the Faust narrative. However, Berlioz’ treatment of orchestral resources was never “incidental.” In this case the principal theme unfolds above a polyphony of different textures emerging from the different sections of the orchestra. (The last time I heard this music was when the San Francisco Opera presented a staged version of Opus 24; and, sadly, all of that polyphony got lost in the orchestra pit.) Mitchell clearly knew how many details were in play in this score, and he knew how to make every one of them stand out in its contribution to the intricacies of the entirety.

Mitchell is definitely a conductor to watch; and hopefully he will return to Davies during the “primary portion” of a coming season.

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