Martin Helmchen Debuts with the SF Symphony. Yan Pascal Tortelier Conducts Berlioz’ Roman Carnival, the Schumann Concerto and Dvorak’s Symphony No.7

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Rising star Martin Helmchen

Martin Helmchen, photo © San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, October 19, 2013
Yan Pascal Tortelier, conducting
Martin Helmchen, piano.

Berlioz       Roman Carnival Overture, Opus 9 (1846)
Schumann  Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 54 (1846)
Dvořák      Symphony No.7 in D Minor, Opus 70 (1885)

“This is such a wonderful program!” gushed the volunteer showing me to my seat. She had already heard Thursday’s concert and clearly looked forward to the repeat in a beatific mood. It made me reflect. Although audiences are more comfortable about being “educated” to a new piece these days – and the new pieces have become more accessible and performance-worthy – there is something to be said for not entering the concert hall as a captive. For once, our orchestra was simply going to play music we all know and love – and try to make us love it more. They succeeded. And it made for a satisfying evening.

I’m always struck, when I hear Berlioz, with how peculiar his training must have been. The jumpy quality and largely missing bass support typical of his music reminds one that the only instrument he ever mastered was the guitar. Fortunately, great composers, when they fidget, do not fidget alike. The sheer originality of how Berlioz chooses to propel his music forward is as striking as Schumann’s dotted rhythms are – and completely different. You almost hear speech delivery in a Berlioz melody, prefiguring Mussorgsky, until he sets it in motion at high speed, like a dog not quite in control of his four paws. Then you experience the exhilaration of getting from A to B while chasing your own tail, careening off the shoulder of the road to cut corners and double-checking to make sure your hindquarters have not been left behind in the dust. I doubt such a description would find favor as a musicological theory. But if you think of Berlioz as an electrifying composer who sets the room alive with mercurial energies bounding in all directions and a certain amount of sheer wheel-spinning, you are getting the point. Yan Pascal Tortelier captured the full measure of the overture, and the ability of the orchestra to toss it off with a certain plummyness of warmth boded well for the rest of the program.

Every concert has its visual dimension, reflecting how the performers see themselves. And, as Thomas Mann pointed out in Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the line between artistic illusion and fraud is a fine one. So it was interesting to observe the world view of conductor and soloist as they took the stage together. Tortelier bears an uncanny resemblance to Vanity Fair’s editor-in-chief, Graydon Carter – fortunately minus the hairspray-swept ailerons. (Carter has managed to sculpt his hair in self-conscious imitation of George Washington’s wig, which looks at any moment as though it’s about to take off for a flight of its own. An affectation, I daresay.) Tortelier conducts without baton, but most effectively, frequently well ahead of the orchestra and turning full 90 degrees to face what comes next. The audience has no trouble viewing his gestures, even without the stick. And despite his French credentials and more normal hair, Tortelier does seem to resemble a benevolent George Washington on the podium!

Martin Helmchen, who joined Tortelier for his debut in the Schumann, seems self-cast as the young Liszt, before he became the white-haired icon we know so well from later years. Helmchen sits back from the music at times, when not engaged in its detail, all profile tilted back and motionless brown hair. He does not sway on the bench like Lisitsa, who hang-glides currents in the music, nor comment with his eyebrows after a difficult passage like Lang Lang, who telegraphs as many seeming asides to the audience as Groucho Marx. Instead he presides over the instrument, radiating something between earnest creativity and Teutonic institutional dignity.

The arrival of the piano onstage is a small drama in itself, but one to which Davies Hall patrons have become accustomed. A gaping hole appears in the stage, as helpers stride from the wings to rearrange the chairs. Then an elegant, white-haired man resembling Jimmy Stewart in his later years comes to stand at the edge, peering slightly askance down the hole, from which nothing seems ever to emerge. For a while it looks like Waiting for Godot, redone by James Thurber. The stage manager tilts his head sideways like Nipper, stares in desultory fashion and then stares some more. When the piano finally levitates to the stage, he pokes at an enormous remote control the size of a shoe box, the motion stops, and he retreats back behind the scene.There is always a chuckle from the audience at the entire enterprise, seemingly so fraught with distrust of the mechanical.

This unsolicited mini-drama prefigured on Saturday a performance of the Schumann Concerto which alternated between quiet lyrical insight and a slightly bare bones sense of the tuttis. It is as if Helmchen wanted to be Cliburn/Reiner at quiet moments and Lipatti/Karajan in the big ones. I have always found the latter performance style a bit too close to an x-ray of the music, hunting for inner voices in lieu of big moments. I’m not sure Schumann always rewards such scrutiny. In any case, Tortelier and Helmchen seemed on the same page when it came to interpretation. It was a good Schumann, indeed ecstatically received. This was a very successful debut. But it leaves a bit unclear just what sort of pianist Martin Helmchen is. Steely above forte and velvety at quieter moments seems more inconsistent than defining. So we will have to see how he does in a really big concerto. Reger, anyone?!

The evening concluded with the most exciting Dvorak Seventh I’ve ever heard, and with a new hero, our acting principal timpanist, Alex Orfaly, who stood out at the rear of the stage with a crimson pocket handkerchief and even more so for driving home with hard sticks the music’s menace and power. One of the problems encountered with the carefully blended German sound of Brahms/Schumann and Mendelssohn – and we add to this Dvorak in his most Brahmsian moods – is the need to create power at certain spots without doing anything extreme. There are no bass drums and cymbal crashes to be heard in this sort of music, as in Tchaikovsky. And no “screaming meemies” to be cued from the trumpets, a la Mahler. Instead, performers must carefully grade the weight of the piece and then add that extra something which carries power over the top. That is the timpanist’s role here.

Orfaly’s unfailing alertness and energy made the symphony utterly electrifying. Meanwhile, Tortelier’s capacity to swoop and dance with the sound made for just the right amount of rubato to go with the piece. This symphony used to suffer from conductors unwilling to expand at the final peroration. Szell, Mehta, even Barbirolli tended play it too straight. Of course, fifty years ago that was the Toscanini legacy… But here, I’d say Tortelier outdid even Belohlavek’s recording with the Czech Philharmonic or Claus Peter Flor’s or Ivan Fischer’s, to name my favorite three CDs of the piece. The sheer weight and power Tortelier brought to bear was beautifully timed, with a broad ritard and final chords so gigantic that Tortelier’s conducting gestures were completely done-with a full two seconds before the orchestra managed to heave out the final chord.

The audience reacted with unison screams – the edge-of-your-seat kind that let performers know they have done something wonderful. I was only sorry to see that, from omission or conviction, the timpanist was not given a chance to have his bow. If only Tortelier had pointed him out, the audience would have screamed even harder. These points of etiquette onstage vary.

But I surveyed the general happiness, and there was no ambiguity about that at all. There is something to be said for well-known music – and performers who show us how to fall in love with it all over again.

Steven Kruger

About Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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