Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Inner Twenty-Year-Old

It was all very well and good for Chronicle Music Critic Joshua Kosman to devote almost the entirety of his column to the San Francisco Symphony's performance of Finnish music (coupling the United States premiere of Kalevi Aho's Louhi with the Sibelius first symphony) under a Finnish conductor (Osmo Vänskä); but what are we to make to the final paragraph of the review?

Between the Finns came Mozart, as pianist Emanuel Ax provided a nimble, unfailingly good-natured account of the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat, K. 482. Ax's playing is precise, beautiful and unobtrusive; it provides unfailing pleasure but defies critical analysis. Better, perhaps, to marvel at its delights and leave it at that.

I suppose this is better than saying, "I've run out of column space, so I really do not have anything to say about Ax or Mozart;" and I cannot fault any of the adjectives that Kosman invoked. (Even "unobtrusive" gets at the fact that all of the Mozart piano concertos are very much dialogs between soloist and orchestra; and Ax was very good about not dominating the dialog.) However, there a few things to add that would do more justice to the performance.

One aspect of any "critical analysis" has to do with the fact that this is a relatively mature work. Mozart was pushing thirty when he wrote it, so his Wunderkind days had long passed. Nevertheless, this piece brought out the show-off kid in him that so aggravated at least the fictitious account of Salieri in Amadeus. I am not talking about the foul-mouthed brat that so fascinated the Amadeus audiences. I am talking about a performer who, from childhood, found the piano keyboard an absolute romp and never tired of the games he could play on it. It was not just that Ax was "nimble" or even "good-natured." It was more that he has now achieved a reputation high enough that he can reflect back on performing that has more to do with fun and less to do with winning competitions or pleasing critics. In other words he could turn the performance over to his inner-twenty-year-old; and he seems to have done this to the pleasure of everyone else in the hall, both in the audience and on the stage.

That level of "critical analysis" would slight the conductor, however; and I think it would be an injustice to portray Vänskä as an expert in Finnish music while disregarding his other skills. One of those skills had to do with the general sound quality of the Symphony. It may have been a consequence of how he prepared the performance of the Sibelius, but he did something that made the Symphony sound like a different orchestra. There was a dry and crisp quality to the timbre that sharply contrasted with the usual lushness of their "big sounds" under Thomas and most of the guest conductors. This served the Sibelius very well by bringing out details that might get buried under all that lushness, but it also worked for the Mozart. Under Vänskä's baton the concerto was not just a conversation but almost (since one cannot ignore the trumpets and timpani) an intimate chat. From that point of departure, Vänskä provided the opportunity for every "voice" in that "chat" to go for its own sound, so to speak. If the effect did not always quite work, that was probably a learning-curve problem. This was not Vänskä's first performance with the Symphony; but he has always been only a guest, which means his preparation time is limited. I am more than a little disappointed that he will not be a guest next season, because he has piqued my curiosity as to where that learning curve could lead.

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