Friday, July 26, 2019

Uneven SFS Summer Beethoven at Davies

Conductor Nimrod David Pfeffer (from the SFS event page for this concert)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the second of the two “serious” concerts in the annual Summer with the Symphony series of events. This was the traditional program devoted entirely to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. As was announced a week ago, pianist Rodolfo Leone, who had been scheduled to make his SFS debut playing the Opus 73 (“Emperor”) concerto, was unable to appear. He was replaced by Andrew von Oeyen, playing the Opus 37 (third) concerto in C minor. Oeyen was last seen here as a Summer with the Symphony soloist about a year ago playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Conductor Nimrod David Pfeffer made his debut on the SFS podium.

Summer with the Symphony offerings tend to go for Beethoven at his most dramatic, and C minor was definitely one of Beethoven’s most emotionally intense key signatures. Von Oeyen had no trouble unleashing the composer’s dramatic qualities at their most expressive. However, that expressiveness was best conveyed by his ability to bring intensity to the soft dynamics as capably as he could deliver the loud. Thus, even with familiarity with the score, one could follow his solo work with some degree of suspense, always wondering when the next mood shift would arise and where it would lead. Opus 37 may not get performed as frequently as Opus 73, but von Oeyen clearly appreciated the abundant qualities of the score and knew how to convey the full extent of those qualities to the attentive listener.

On the podium Pfeffer seemed to appreciate all that von Oeyen was determined to express in this concerto, and Pfeffer was a conductor that allowed his soloist as much rein as the situation required. Nevertheless, when it was the orchestra’s turn to take over the dramatic rhetoric, Pfeffer made sure that the listeners were not short-changed. As a result, at least where this particular concerto is concerned, the soloist-conductor relationship could not have been more effective.

Equally effective was von Oeyen’s choice of an encore, which reflected back on his having played Gershwin last summer. However, this was not just “any old Gershwin tune.” Rather, von Oeyen turned to the collection of seven Virtuoso Etudes composed by Earl Wild, each structured around a familiar Gershwin song. Von Oeyen played the third of these études based on “The Man I Love;” and it was a real treat listening to one of Gershwin’s most affectionate songs refracted through stunning embellishments that reminded the attentive listener of just how much Wild knew about Franz Liszt. (The “Embraceable You” étude comes close to actually quoting one of Liszt’s own études.)

Left to his own devices, Pfeffer was less convincing. His overture-concerto-symphony program began with the overture from the Opus 84 incidental music composed for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Egmont. Pfeffer took a rich broad-strokes approach to the score’s dramatic rhetoric. It was a performance that appealed to audience familiarity; and, for the most part, it worked. My only quibble is a wish that the timpanist had used sticks with harder heads, not because they would have been more “historically informed” (since the overall approach to resources was definitely not historically-informed) but because there are so many elegant turns of rhythm for the timpani that they deserve to be heard with crisp precision.

The symphony was the Opus 67 (fifth), which allowed Pfeffer to stake out his own survey of emotional C minor territory. Unfortunately, the overall effect was one of self-indulgence, rather than letting Beethoven call the emotional shots. Mind you, SFS probably knows Opus 67 so well that they need little more than the Concertmaster (Wyatt Underhill last night) to keep everything in line. This allowed Pfeffer to indulge in his own choreographic excesses with little harm to the music itself.

Nevertheless, I feel a need to call out a particularly sore nerve in my own experience of this spectacle. Having seen the effect more times than I can enumerate, I must finally come down with the explicit assertion that a conductor’s baton is not a baseball bat. This whole business of grasping the baton with two hands and then leading it through a slow-motion swing is the perfect example of preferring to show off to the audience over leading the ensemble and doing justice to the composer. (Does anyone want to see Buster Posey on the Davies podium?) Since Pfeffer is currently Assistant Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, this may have just been a matter of reveling the opportunity to be in plain view, rather than being relegated to an orchestra pit; but this is a young conductor that has yet to learn that a concert experience is more about what the composer expresses rather than what the conductor displays.

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