Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Feast of Young Blood

There was so much attention to Gustavo Dudamel making his debut conducting the San Francisco Symphony this week at Davies Symphony Hall that piano soloist Kirill Gerstein ran a risk of almost total neglect. In the San Francisco Chronicle Joshua Kosman banished him to his two final paragraphs, which may have been there to fill out the remaining space allotted for his review:
The first half of the program was devoted to Rachmaninoff's First Piano Concerto, a crudely sketchy approximation of the Romantic concerto tradition that the composer would master much more persuasively in his later works.
Pianist Kirill Gerstein, appearing for the first time on a Symphony subscription program after a 2005 debut on the Summer in the City series, made an impressive showing, romping nimbly through the piece's passagework and collaborating with Dudamel in a briskly rhythmic account of the two outer movements. I'd be eager to hear him again in a repertoire worthy of his talents.
This left Kosman with plenty more room to wax over how Dudamel had turned his audience "into a mass of starry-eyed teenagers, awestruck at the sight of a celebrity idol;" and, indeed, celebrity status may have had a lot to do with why all three of this week's concerts enjoyed sold-out capacity. Nevertheless, what both Gerstein and Dudamel did with one of Sergei Rachmaninoff's earliest attempts at composition (from his student period with opus number 1) was far more important than the tyro status of the composition. Yes, anyone could fill up many inches of column space waxing over Dudamel's intricate control of all the details of Igor Stravinsky's complete score for the Firebird ballet with its orchestral resources that Stravinsky himself later called "wastefully large;" and there is no question that this score, particularly when expanded beyond the excerpts performed as a suite, deserves a major place in any "repertoire worthy of the talents" of a serious conductor, if only, for no other reason, because it deserves to be rescued from the inadequate resources it usually receives when in the orchestra pit at a ballet performance. However, as I have previously written, the real test of performance skill comes when one needs to deliver a work that is not "up there" among the recognized masterpieces.
Rachmaninoff's score is neither crude nor sketchy, but also it is not particularly imaginative. It serves as little more than a platform for a dazzling display of keyboard technique, making it another example of the sort of composition that Johannes Brahms would dismiss as "Lisztich." As I observed about a month ago, the primary factor that rescues Pyotr Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto from this adjective is his sense of orchestral sound; and, while Rachmaninoff came up with more color than most of Franz Liszt's orchestral efforts, he still fell far short of Tchaikovsky. This poses an interesting question: Confronted with all the known limitations, are soloist and conductor obliged to find a way to make lemonade from this lemon?
I think the answer is a definite "yes!" Once a commitment has been made to perform a work, then that commitment carries the obligation of performing it in such a way that the audience will not feel they have been wasting their time listening to it. (I should point out that I know of at least one conductor who has disagreed with me on at least one occasion. I shall not name any names, but the work in question happened to be Rachmaninoff's third symphony.) Listening to the way in which Gerstein and Dudamel approach this concerto did not feel like a waste of time at all. Most importantly, Gerstein had a perfectly composed approach to all the technical demands that Rachmaninoff piled onto this score. He was the exact opposite of Nikolai Lugansky, who, when performing the Tchaikovsky concerto last month, could not let a note sound without banging the hell out of it. Gerstein could not only play every note with the right touch, but his touch was informed by a keen understanding of how to sort out all those notes in Rachmaninoff's pile into successive layers of embellishment. That understanding was clearly shared by Dudamel, who worked with Gerstein to deploy the (admittedly weak) orchestral score to reinforce Gerstein's conception of how the composition "worked;" and, if Rachmaninoff tended to be weak on coloration, Dudamel knew how to bring the colors up to a level where they enhanced our listening experience. The result was far more of a treat than one would have anticipated (particularly if one had been unfortunate enough to have read Kosman's dismissive remarks); and, if the audience came for Dudamel, they were just as appreciative of Gerstein.
Indeed, they were so appreciative as to encourage his decision to take a solo encore. This was an arrangement of George Gershwin's "Embraceable You," probably from Gerstein's debut recording, in which case the arrangement was by Earl Wild. Wild is one of my favorite pianists, particularly after I heard his Art of the Transcription recital many years ago at Carnegie Hall. Wild has a keen understanding of Liszt and has long been interested in performing the many transcriptions that Liszt prepared. He also has a long history as a "working" pianist, having served as "staff pianist" for the ABC television network. This provides him with a good "show-biz" take on Gershwin; but this particular transcription was more informed by Liszt's compositional approach. Gerstein's encore was thus in a totally different league from the arrangements we find in George Gershwin's Song Book (which, incidentally, do not include "Embraceable You").
All this attention to Gerstein is not meant to deny the spotlight from Dudamel; but I do not particularly like writing texts that say little more than "Me, too!" I have no major disagreements with the way in which Kosman called things in his review of the Thursday night performance of the Firebird score. However, having written many dance reviews earlier in my life, I have to observe that even Tamara Karsavina (the original Firebird) would have risked twisting an ankle trying to dance to Dudamel's tempo for the "Dance of the Firebird" section. I am not sure why he chose such a demanding tempo; but, since he was not working with dancers, he certainly had more flexibility in the choices he made. By most standards this is a rather long ballet, and the plot tends to be pretty opaque to anyone not familiar with Russian folklore. Without having to worry about a stage full of dancers, elaborate costumes, and colorful scenery, Dudamel was in a position to keep things moving along at a clip that did not necessarily honor the underlying scenario; and I was pretty happy with how he did this. As far as the rest of the audience was concerned, Kosman already said his piece about that!

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