Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra at Davies Hall, San Francisco

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Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo Marco Borggreve.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo Marco Borggreve.

Davies Hall, San Francisco
Monday, February 16, 2015
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conducting
Hélène Grimaud, piano

Ravel – Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) Suite
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major
Prokofiev – Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Opus 100

In the first hundred years of our still budding love affair with Maurice Ravel, his orchestral works have come to us from many directions. But despite our familiarity, Ravel’s music remains enigmatic beneath its surface appeal. There is something “film-noir” about it. We are in a mystery. The lady has shown up at the detective agency wearing a veil….and one suspects it might take a Frenchman to lift it without getting his face slapped.

Conductors such as Ansermet, Monteux, Munch, Dutoit, Boulez, Chung, Tortelier, all steeped in French culture, have achieved insight in Ravel’s music—and are venerated for it. But now, from a new generation, we add the name of French Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Nézet-Séguin may turn out to be the greatest Ravel conductor of them all, if his recent visit to Davies Hall with the Rotterdam Philharmonic is any indicator. He has found warmth in the music. How cool!

The trick with Ravel is to evoke tiny happenings which swirl below the surface. Every little woodwind trill or burp must call out to the other instruments and be answered in a way which engages. Each plucked harp note must take part in a conversation. Phrases must ebb and flow, with the right amount of sudden satin or frigid frisson. Balletic pauses need to occur for a reason, with suspended weight and breathtaking quiet, all this until the listener is struck dumb by pirouetting musical beauty occurring moment for moment, just where he doesn’t expect it. That is the trick: making every single chord beautiful, while saving “impressions” from caricature. Difficult. Nézet-Séguin managed just that. Where other orchestras merely noodle, Nézet-Séguin’s Rotterdam players coaxed genuine emotion from the music. It might as well have been composed by Humperdinck. The audience went manic.

Much beauty lay in the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s overall sonority. The strings sounded rich and weighty, similar to those in the Dresden Staatskapelle or the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, but with just enough extra wind and brass prominence to be convincing in French music. To the orchestra’s credit was the ability of its brass players to sneak into textures without a percussive first note and play with breathless quiet. The San Francisco Symphony could learn from that.

The appearance together onstage of Hélène Grimaud and Yannick Nézet-Séguin amounted to an amusing contrast, even if the concerto which followed was nearly an anticlimax. As so often with conductors, the effervescent Nézet-Séguin is “vertically challenged” and has apparently decided to own the nickname “Mighty Mouse.” Indeed, he nearly takes flight, as he punches out the brasses. Only the cape is missing! Grimaud, meanwhile, is tall and willowy.

She arrived onstage wearing white satin pajamas, no jewelry and a cloud of brown hair hiding her face. The effect was startling, as though she had been awakened from a nap by the meter-reader. By the end of the concerto, though, which she played with remarkable zest, her demeanor had become flirtatious and the sartorial effect had morphed from narcotic to erotic.

Still, she was trying a bit too hard, I think, to deconstruct the Ravel Concerto. Her first movement alternated between rhapsodic and violent. And it was notable that the orchestra managed more poetry in the slow movement than she did, being more consistently fluid and managing a softer tone. In the finale, all was energy and eagerness. It would have been churlish to complain.

Where Ma Mère l’Oye was a ravishing eye-opener, the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony amounted to a test of the orchestra’s power. It was simply the best performance I have yet heard. Once again Nézet-Séguin’s swoopy sensuality and structural intuitions made their mark. The orchestra’s tonal palette seemed like “Brahms with percussion”. At the end of the first movement, where cannon are heard in the distance outside Leningrad and build their barrage, Nézet-Séguin held the music back with a perfect ritardando, until the world seemed to crash down upon the listener. I’ve been waiting fifty years for those bars to be conducted that way. The last chord of the movement was so violent, the Davies Hall concrete shook below my feet.

The scherzo which followed was alternately sardonic and slithery. There is something about the way Nézet-Séguin moves which can milk contrasting sections for all they are worth and yet make the whole endeavor hold together. This quality was even more in evidence in the Adagio. I have never heard it creepier. The final climax begins at a distance, marches lopsidedly towards the listener like a phalanx of the un-dead and tramples right over him with a ghastly screech. (If one isn’t in the mood, the climactic chord sounds like Bugs Bunny witnessing a horror!) Here, the effect was dark and flattening.

The finale was electrifying, as it should be. The Rotterdam has a wonderful percussion section, and the bass drum, which Prokofiev uses almost like a melodic instrument, was employed with great vigor and ratcheting tension.

Following truly joyous applause, the “Mouse and Pajama” team sat down at the piano and cranked out two Brahms waltzes. It was just the right fluff to send us out into the good night.

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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