Benjamin Grosvenor Plays Ravel with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony. Romeo and Juliet from Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and a Dash of Stravinsky

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Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor

Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, September 6, 2014
The San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Benjamin Grosvenor, piano

Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major
Stravinsky – Scherzo à la russe
Prokofiev – Scenes from Romeo and Juliet

Indian summer is a favorite time of year in San Francisco. The city’s deceptively cutting winds give way to something approaching balminess. And one gears up, if not for romance, then surely for a new Symphony season to warm the heart, excite the pulse and remind one that art is the password to beauty’s permanence. I’ve often commented about the happy spirit of our symphony…and do so again. There exist surly orchestras, whose players sit looking for all the world as though they’d gladly wring the conductor’s neck as play for him. (These tend to be Russian!) But before I’m accused of national prejudices, I should point out, as an old New Yorker, that the New York Philharmonic is quite capable of gathering onstage looking as though they’d like to kill each other! Perhaps it is Panglossian naïveté to think comity reigns here, but it certainly seemed so on Saturday.

The Davies Hall stage was bristling with spot microphones, as we sat down. I expect the Tchaikovsky overture is being recorded for Michael Tilson Thomas’ successful television series. The piece is perhaps over familiar. And as I told my companion, one has heard its main melody too often in elevators. But this was the opening subscription week. I was heartened to see a fair number of children among the audience and a largely sold-out house. And I don’t think I’ve encountered a reading so attentive to the piece, most of which is actually un-hysterical and capable of subtlety.

MTT and the orchestra supplied it, a cautious slow build with a touch of inwardness to it. I was happy to hear hushed playing and a pleasing ability of the winds and low brass to enter the texture unobtrusively. These ppp moments have often seemed unimportant to Tilson Thomas, (at least from the listener’s perspective), but now he seems to signal for them more often, as he would later in the Prokofiev selections. And I was impressed with our timpanist, who gave meaning to his quiet convulsive funereal solo towards the end, with just the right degree of portentousness.

As it was time for the concerto, our lengthy SF ritual of bringing the piano onstage from the below-depths of the hall now took place. Other concert halls manage to have a crew roll the instrument out from the wings in short order. Our process involves the vanishing of the podium beneath the floor and its eventual reappearance with a Steinway sitting next to it. Progress is glacial and the stage crew, dressed in black, tend to stare down into the sinkhole lugubriously, looking for all the world like a collection of characters out of the Adams Family. This time the process took so long, a gaggle of children collected near the abyss and stared down into it. Maybe someone told them there were sea lions in the basement!

The Ravel Concerto in G, like most French music, relies for its special voice on the woodwinds of the orchestra. So I hastened to tell my companion, who is French, that I’d never heard such perfect wind playing as I did several years ago, when the Orchestre National de Radio France appeared in San Francisco. Only a French ensemble, perhaps, can derive personality and ultimate meaning from the tiny “noodles” on clarinet, bassoon, flute and oboe that occur in so much French music. Be that as it may, the SFS gave a lovely rendition of the concerto. It was my first time hearing Benjamin Grosvenor, and his delicate touch with trills seemed to open up a whole new world with them. He is a fine pianist all around, but tiny subtleties produced with the right hand is what he was all about—perfect for Ravel. Grosvenor, 24 years old, looks like a slightly small-boned English boarding school student—maybe the sort who collects butterflies. But his performance was both exciting and mature. The slow movement was an effortless Bachian dreamscape. In the finale MTT, who loves musical razzmatazz, delivered all the snark you could want, though I had to notice that our trumpet sounded as Gershwinesque as French!

French-influenced sass also came next in Stravinsky’s Scherzo à la russe, which I had not heard live before. Like so much Stravinsky, this is not music you play the day your dog dies. There is little evident emotion, but instead a sort of clever oompah-oompah on the low brass, a lot of swirling woodwind notes and sense of jazz-age cool. It was a fine palate cleanser. But now it was time for a good Bordeaux.

There is probably nobody who loves Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet more than Michael Tilson Thomas. His recording with the orchestra, which I’ve re-encountered since, would be hard to improve upon. But Saturday’s selections were just as beautiful and carried with them moments of extra insight. We moved up to seats over the basses after intermission, and the sound, simply put, was glorious. I’ve often said that if Brahms were Russian and composing a generation later, he would have been Prokofiev.The richness and warmth of Prokofiev’s orchestration is balm to the heart.

Tilson Thomas was relaxed and in his element on Saturday. Had he been conducting Brahms, there would be a certain seriousness, but he would never seem so deeply moved. No metaphysical gazing into the middle distance, as German conductors do. It simply wouldn’t be in his DNA to respond like that. But on Saturday I have never seen him happier nor more affected emotionally. He conducted, nay, danced his way through the selections, giving most downbeats with his left hand, holding the baton unused by his side like an umbrella. A classic MTT gesture, when he is happy and wants the music to sweep with abandon, is to whip sideways back and forth, as though whirling frisbees at the strings. He did this so much, you half expected to see border-collies retrieving from the wings. And confident of his orchestra, Thomas often stopped conducting entirely to listen.

Now soon to turn seventy on Christmas Eve, Michael Tilson Thomas has every reason to preside and to do so proudly. He has been here now for twenty years. The San Francisco symphony is recognized as one of the world’s great orchestras. And he has had the talent to bring music appreciation to life. It is not every city any more, where the Music Director of the orchestra is such a major figure and recognized by everyone. As the Prokofiev ballet concluded, I noted how enthusiastic the audience was and still is.

Indeed, I expect, if introduced to him today, San Francisco, its orchestra and it audience might say, “May we have this dance?!”

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.