Sunday, March 30, 2008

Giving Mozart his Due

It is almost exactly a year ago that I took San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman to task for a one-paragraph account of a performance of a Mozart piano concerto in the San Francisco Symphony season that ran the gamut from the dismissive to the vacuous. Last time the concerto was K. 482, the pianist was Emanuel Ax, and the conductor was Osmo Vänskä; and Kosman was clearly more interested in a Finnish conductor's approach to two Finnish composers, one familiar (Jean Sibelius) and one contemporary (Kalevi Aho). This time the "victim" was the earlier K. 456 B-flat major concerto, performed by Richard Goode under the baton of Alan Gilbert. As the recently appointed successor to Lorin Maazel in directing the New York Philharmonic, Gilbert has been attracting almost as much publicity as Gustavo Dudamel, who will soon be a permanent fixture at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ironically, anyone who witnessed Dudamel bring the house down at Davies Symphony Hall with his interpretation of Igor Stravinsky's Firebird would probably be justified in asking, "Yes, but what can he do with Mozart?" In that respect Gilbert provided a broader palette of offerings to feed our prognostications, balancing the Mozart concerto with Carl Nielsen's second symphony (within five years of the "vintage" of the Sibelius symphony that Vänskä had conducted) and the first San Francisco Symphony performance of Steven Stucky's 1988 "Son et lumière" (complementing Vänskä's United States premiere of Aho's much more recent "Louhi").

It may just be that I have fallen under the influence of a city that has a Midsummer Music Festival, but I continue to believe that a performance of Mozart can still tell us a lot about what a conductor can (or cannot) do. Thus, however familiar the music itself may be, the performance of that music is as important as the performance of less familiar compositions. This time at least Kosman doubled the number of paragraphs devoted to this portion of Gilbert's program:

In between, Richard Goode was the soloist in a charming but tonally mismatched account of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-Flat, K. 456. The pleasure of Goode's playing is its ineffable lightness; even in the athletic passages of the opening movement or the dark minor harmonies of the slow movement, he kept things fleet and translucent.

But he and Gilbert didn't seem to be in accord on this point. The orchestral playing was much heavier and more emphatic, which - depending on where a listener's attention was focused - either produced a sense of bombast from the orchestra or made Goode sound like a lightweight.

Once again we, as readers, had to contend with relatively stock phrases, which, when confronted with the reality of last night's performance (as opposed to Wednesday night's), did not appear to hold very much weight.

Most important is a need to recognize the broad scope of diversity that cuts across the canon of Mozart piano concertos. Symphony regulars got another "dose" of K. 482 about a month ago, when Jonathan Biss performed it with Herbert Blomstedt on the podium; and, as I have previously suggested, this particular concerto is very youthful in spirit, even if it is chronologically more "mature" than K. 456. Particularly in its first movement, K. 456 is a fabric of many voices, not just those of a give-and-take between piano and orchestra but also within the piano itself. Readers may recall that, for me, the most memorable part of Goode's Berkeley recital (now almost two months ago) was his command of the "discourse" among the three voices of the Well-Tempered Clavier fugue he played at the beginning of his recital. Mozart could display a similar command of such discourse in his keyboard writing, and Goode is a perfect pianist for bringing our ears into the thick of that discourse. More significantly is that a meeting between the multiple voices within the piano and the multiple voices across the orchestra demands significant "accord" (to use Kosman's terminology) between soloist and conductor; and Gilbert had a keen sense of how to engage his multiple resources with those at Goode's fingertips.

A good framework for this kind of performance can be found in the script of Amadeus. There we find Mozart writing about wanting to compose an opera scene that begins as a duet and keeps bringing in more and more characters, thus building up the complexity of the dialog that ensues. This is how the finale to the second act of The Marriage of Figaro was eventually realized. Ironically, Mozart was working on this in the time frame of K. 482. It might not be too far-fetched to view K. 456 as a "rehearsal" of this kind of strategy for managing multiple voices; and that kind of "rehearsal" continues into the two remaining movements of the concerto (although there is also a definite sense of that "inner twenty-year old" in the final movement).

None of this should detract from the attention that Kosman paid to Gilbert's approach to the twentieth-century repertoire, early or late. This is not to say that I subscribe to Kosman's approach to Nielsen. The truth is that I did not give Nielsen much thought until I invested in the recordings of all six symphonies that Blomstedt made with the San Francisco Symphony almost twenty years ago. I remember when Leonard Bernstein promoted the fifth of these symphonies back when I was a student, but I also remember having my curiosity piqued in later years by occasional radio broadcasts. Unlike Kosman, I have never been particularly concerned with matters of "idiosyncratic rhetoric and edgy harmonies." Rather, I was more interested in the way in which Gilbert achieved a significant difference in sound quality in his move from Mozart to Nielsen, then same way that Vänskä had done in his move from Mozart to Sibelius; and, to be more specific, I was interested in how the San Francisco Symphony was engaged to make that move along with Gilbert. Once again, this all comes down to the question of how the program for the entire evening is conceived. Last Thursday I wrote about the "architecture" of a program, because Nikolaj Znaider's recital felt like it was organized around an a priori static structure; but, in contrast, Gilbert's program (like Vänskä's) felt more like a journey. (This was a particularly appropriate metaphor for the program the New York Philharmonic presented on their visit to Pyongyang.) After all, Nielsen's own approach to composition could be seen as a journey from his listening experiences as a student to those of an adult experimenting with synthesizing experiences of his own (possibly in the context of support he received from Ferruccio Busoni, whose own career involved a rather extensive journey).

The way in which Gilbert and the Symphony "made the move" had less to do with whether or not Nielsen's symphony, whose four movements were inspired by the four ancient "temperaments" of choler, phlegm, melancholy, and sanguinity, was more "programmatic" than Mozart's concerto and more to do with a different strategy in how energy was being deployed. Nielsen may be less nuanced than Mozart; but Gilbert and the Symphony could make a virtue out of his more expansive (to invoke an adjective from his third symphony) sense of sound, which has as much emotional depth in its silences as it has when everyone is playing in full force. We could thus leave Davies with a sense of a journey worth making without worrying about whether or not one stop along that journey was, in any way, "better" than another.

This brings us to the "beginning" of this journey, Stucky's "Son et lumière," which was very much a high-energy affair. I have to say that I think that the title was a bit unfair, since it was named for those tourist-trap affairs that cover the world from the Egyptian pyramids to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, plagued by tendentious narration on top of orchestral forces putting out Hollywood sprawl at its worst. Stucky, on the other hand, was probably thinking about the relationship between sound and light in terms of the extent to which an orchestra could be applied as a palette of colors. There was no mention of Olivier Messiaen in the notes that Thomas May provided for this piece; but it was interesting to be able to listen to Stucky's composition in the context of having heard Messiaen's "L'Ascension" at the beginning of this year. In a manner that may be more consistent with Messiaen's mysticism than with Stucky's more cerebral bent, the latter's work seems to have less to do with "sound and light" than with "sound as light" (a position that is reinforced by some of Stucky's own remarks about the work). In that respect the journey began very much the way the Messiaen-to-Mahler journey had begun. This is an orchestra that knows how to be one of those palettes of colors, and Gilbert knew how to use them to deploy those colors.

To my ears, however, those colors came less from Messiaen and more from that earlier colorist, Richard Strauss. The opening (and also closing) gesture sounded to me, for all the world, like a percussion-only interpretation of the opening gesture of the latter's Elektra opera. This is not to say that Stucky's composition was an homage to either Strauss or that particular opera. However, it may have been why I came away dissatisfied with Stucky's choice of title, since I have always found sitting through an evening of Sophocles (even when tarted up by Strauss' orchestra excesses) far more satisfying that watching colored lights shining on the Parthenon!

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