Eschenbach and David Fray with the San Francisco Symphony: Dalbavie, Beethoven, and Brahms

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Christoph Eschenbach

Christoph Eschenbach

San Francsico Symphony Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
David Fray, piano

Marc-André Dalbavie, La Source d’un Regard
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 2
Brahms, Symphony No. 2

There’s an improvisational mindset in the American character which can sometimes be hard on a European musician who composes according to a “system”. We are a nation of pragmatic, rather than theoretical listeners. We tend to disregard instruction manuals and learn by getting behind the wheel. We expect music to be ergonomic. Dodecaphony isn’t driveable, we find, so we leave it on the lot. The tires are twelve-sided, and all the knobs and levers are in the wrong places. Sorry! No sale. And now we distrust everything cerebral coming down the pike!

Christoph Eschenbach opened his March 8th San Francisco Symphony concert with  Marc-André Dalbavie’s luminous and silky La Source d’un Regard. I think the audience would have liked this new French piece more if the program notes had not tried so hard to explain it. “The Wellspring of a Glance” is a lovely notion. The Hegelian complexity of “Spectralism”, less of one.

For thirty years now, composers have been returning to listenability through various side doors and freight entrances, and audiences by now are on to them. Every so often we are told that something obvious, such as rhythm or consonance or even “sound”, has been “rediscovered”, but that only makes us wonder who would have been foolish enough to do without it in the first place. Still, if the charade saves face and little else, this approach is beginning at last to set before listeners new music they may want to hear.

Dalbavie’s piece reminds me of Olivier Messiaen’s L’Ascension, only it sparkles more, as though somehow framed and “heard” through a ground-glass viewfinder. Indeed, the upper reaches of the orchestra float beautifully midair like  whitecap-mist over the Golden Gate. Much of the music seems to feed on timbre, with echos coloring echos.  Intuitively, too, you sense a balanced structure related to the music’s sense of direction, which is not strictly tonal but sonorous just the same, and more pleasing to listen to than to describe.

In L’Ascension Messiaen maintained a flowing Sibelian quality, with slow modal- sounding crescendi that never hit the listener percussively. Dalbavie achieves the same in La Source d’un Regard. The music slides forward softly, gleaming and luxurious. Ormandy would have loved the luster of the piece. Eschenbach clearly did.

At the apex of La Source d’un Regard an intriguing and effective climax deconstructs itself and collapses downward in pitch, rather like the legendary dynamited casino on television. You first sense the music coming apart at the edges, and then the structure implodes, as if some enormous soda straw had sucked it down into the dust.  I doubt this moment could have been composed before digital TV or photography. The music seems to disintegrate into frosted pixels.

Happily, no one will mistake La Source d’un Regard for a dodecaphonic piece.  In fact, it frequently seems just about to burst into something recognizable from D’Indy or Dutilleux, and I recall thinking much of it would make an evocative movie score. Marc-André Dalbavie’s music deserves to be heard more often….and the theories about it heard less.

The second work on the program, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2, continued the Franco-German alliance of the evening with the appearance of David Fray, the young French pianist.  At least, we hoped he would appear!  At first, the audience was greeted by a large hole in the stage and the non-appearance of Mr. Fray’s piano.

In recent months, physically imposing soloists have been performing in Davies Hall, so I half fantasized that the attachment of outsized legs by stagehands would result in the belated appearance of an enormous “McPiano”. But an unassuming instrument soon rose through the floor, and a very tall Mr.Fray was warmly welcomed to it.

Where Dennis Matsuev may be said to loom over his instrument like a gentle giant, David Fray gives the impression of being able to fold himself up like a lean bird on a power line. He is being compared to Glenn Gould in the press, but I think this may have more to do with a reverential appearance sitting at the piano and with his choice of repertory, than with any Gouldian sonority or eccentricities.

Glenn Gould was essentially a big-toned romantic pianist, as became more apparent when he moved away from Bach and began to record later works, such as the Scriabin Third Sonata, not to mention several by Prokofiev.  We remember him, in any case, for the boldness and insight of his phrasing, not for any special sound.

David Fray is all about sound.  Timbre, specifically. Indeed, I think his sonority may very appropriately be described as “clair”. There is a wonderful dignity in what the French mean by this word. The idea of “clarity” connotes not only precision, but purity and something approaching a moral aesthetic. It is to be striven for with head held high and pursued as an ideal.

At his best, as in the Beethoven’s harmonically advanced first movement cadenza, Mr. Fray seemed to find infinite shades of crystalline sound within sustained sonorities.  He was never happier, it seemed, than when he could be a glassblower shaping the optics of an existing scene.  This caused problems for him, I felt, during other portions of the concerto, where a bit too much pedal made for somewhat thin and watery passagework.  But the subtleties were intriguing.

It will be interesting to see what David Fray sounds like in a larger work. The pianism I heard would be ideal for Saint-Saëns, for instance. The Beethoven was dispatched with some gusto and energy, and there were a few amusing moments where the pianist passed the music back to the podium with such energetic arm-flapping that the orchestra briefly followed him instead of Mr. Eschenbach. Fortunately, Mr. Fray was headed in the same direction.  Had it actually been Glenn Gould, this might not have been the case!

Christoph Eschenbach’s program, and indeed his extended appearance with the San Francisco Symphony, came to a conclusion with an exciting and idiomatic performance of Brahms Second Symphony. Eschenbach can always be relied upon to capture the essential sound of German music, and many of the homegrown subtleties of the Brahms sonority seemed to emerge organically from the players. Only a lonely forest wolf of an oboe would have been needed for this to be a German orchestra.

This was real conducting: Subtly ebbing and flowing wind dynamics in the scherzo, a  richly Wagnerian ending to the slow movement, real, joyous power in the finale. Fine feeling in the first movement, too, growling trombones, and mercifully no repeat….but why has this movement of the symphony become so slow in recent years?

I was amused to see the program notes reflect Brahms’  teasing of his friends about a  “dirge-like”  new symphony in “F-minor”. The composer must have been aware that one conductor’s sun-dappled gambol in the woods could turn into another’s effortful trek through grey skies, drizzle and rotting leaves!

The supposedly light-hearted, summery and bucolic qualities inherent in this piece have been gone for decades, I find, despite the endless references to them. The gloom appears to have won out, a byproduct of hagiography, perhaps, and the monumentalism it creates. But two enormously long and undifferentiated slow movements, played back to back, are surely not what Brahms had in mind.

Conductors who take an expansive approach to the first movements of the Brahms Symphonies would do well to count coughs in the audience.

About the author

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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