Michael Francis debuts with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

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Michael Francis. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Michael Francis. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, November 13, 2010

Michael Francis, Conductor

Milhaud – La Création du monde,Opus 81 (1923)
Wainwright – Five Shakespeare Sonnets (2010)
Rufus Wainwright, Vocalist
Weill – Symphony No. 2 (1934)

One of the consolations of living in a successful middle-class society, I think, is to experience the evaporation of self-consciously plug-ugly proletarian art and music. Many of the last century’s early musical compositions seem today unnecessarily obsessed with wheezing ’round the campfire, banging on pots and pans, or otherwise ramming washtub crudities down the listener’s throat. Even where it isn’t that obvious, the blue-collar bias can be detected: “Barefoot Songs” by Tubin. “Hammersmith” by Holst, Milhaud’s “Le Boeuf sur le toit,” and of course, almost everything by Copland. Just under the surface of most music from the 1920s and 30s, you could say, lies a post office mural. And like post office murals, sometimes it is great art, sometimes propaganda, and sometimes just not worthy of restoration.

Saturday’s crossover-tinged program at Davies Hall featured two works which magnificently transcend these populist roots, Milhaud’s “La Création du monde”, and Kurt Weill’s Second Symphony. It also brought us Rufus Wainwright’s “Five Shakespeare Sonnets,” a vivid demonstration of the fact that nature abhors a vacuum, and a stern reminder that the tractors may have rolled on into history, only to be replaced by the packaged banalities of musical fast food.

Milhaud’s short ballet is a gleaming and refined distillation of many tendencies from the jazz era. In its 17 minute span, an alto saxophone and 17 instruments manage to spin diaphanous dreams. There is only one bass and timpani, yet the work seems sprung from a bass drum pulse. I spent half its undulating length trying to see how the players were managing this, without success. Indeed, the genius of the piece comes from one’s awareness that the composer has managed a hundred delicious effects out of seemingly nothing. One moment we seem to be rolling through a primordial forest like Josten’s “Jungle,” the next experiencing flutter-tongue seduction on the dance floor, or marching alongside the iffy violin intonations of “L’Histoire du soldat.” It bears recalling that “Les Six” were devoted to the music of Eric Satie–our first immortal minimalist–it would be hard to find a work more satisfyingly minimal than this—or more delicate.

Critics have a tendency to get the piece wrong, though. Anything jazz-sprung is supposed to be sassy, edgy, too loud, and in your face. Perfect for Dudamel, no? Quite the opposite. Michael Francis proved an inspired choice. Francis is a tall fellow, recently of the LSO, with a face, mobile for an Englishman, that reflects the purpose of every cue, and sweeping arms that manage tight effects with big gestures. That is almost impossible to do. The novice conductor will make increasingly large motions, only to find the orchestra getting mushier and mushier. Conversely, conducting tightly from the wrist close to the body can sometimes produce a tick-tocky effect. Francis has a way of reaching far outward and then marshalling a violent snap at the end of his beat. This gives the orchestra the power-point, but maintains the flow. These huge gestures sometimes look amusing from directly aft, since Francis doesn’t seem to care which way his baton is pointing when he makes them. There were times I thought he had mistaken it for a propeller. But the propulsion in “La Création du monde” was refined, and masterpiece-worthy. The brass were soft and wonderful. I wish I had a recording of the performance.

Many years ago, Glenn Gould pointed out that the glory of classical music lies in its ability to evoke wonder and timeless beauty. When Rufus Wainwright set 5 Shakespeare Sonnets to music, one assumes he would have understood that Shakespeare had labored to similar artistic goals. What the Davies Hall audience experienced, however, was derivative music, generically orchestrated,pop expression, and a level of narcissistic behavior on the part of the”vocalist” that rivalled Kanye West.

Rufus Wainwright showed up before his stage microphone, a Byronically pasty young man wearing clogs, fatigue pants, a sleeveless black shirt, and a red carnation pinned to the shoulder. He then proceeded for five minutes to tell the audience how talented his voice was and how many people, including the conductor, had told him he might not want to wear noisy clogs onstage that night, because they interfered with people’s ability to hear his wonderful voice. At this point, he removed his shoes, to titters from the many young females in the balcony, and began to sing barefoot, if one can call it that.

It took me only a moment to realize what was desperately wrong with Wainwright’s voice, and why his music might conceivably have been listenable, if sung by someone else without a microphone. Wainwright’s diction is slurred and sloppy, both speaking and singing, and he has a nightclub habit of beginning every emotion-laden phrase hopelessly off-key. As he gropes for pitch, he gets louder, and by the time he finds it, he lands softly. The result is that 80% of what you hear is jarringly tuneless, made worse by microphone and loudspeaker harshness as it reaches forte—and by the fact that the orchestra is paying IN tune.

To be fair, there was a beautiful melody for Sonnet No.43, but one of the other songs concluded with a Muzak-like pop-cutoff. Sonnet No.129 evidently found Shakespeare aggressive with adjectives, and a kind of equal hostility from orchestra and singer seemed to work here, creating a downward stepladder of violence. Wainwright’s cycle concluded with chimes. It sounded like the love scene from Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica.

The audience response to this feast of affectation, was enthusiastic. Concertgoers are always grateful when music isn’t cerebral, and female enthusiasm was palpable, but much of it had to do with the falsetto through which Wainwright projects his emotions. It is the only range of his voice which I, too, found appealing. But it won’t last. Pictures of Wainwright on the internet show him with cigarettes dangling from his mouth. The voice will be gone in a few years, victim of his many poses. Meanwhile, onward with the adrenalin and the extravagant demeanor, so contrary to what Glenn Gould meant by timeless beauty and wonder.

Saturday’s concert wound up with a superb rendition of Kurt Weill’s Second Symphony. At the conclusion, I overheard two very old ladies saying, “Why, I thought it was going to be awful, and it was just a wonderful piece!” It has taken me all of 42 years to hear a live performance, but I recall thinking the very same thing, the first time I heard it. In those days, the only recording was by Gary Bertini and the BBC Symphony. The cover featured George Grosz’ Weimar-era drawings of “Germans”—grim, stolid, pig-eyed shopkeepers, scary old men walking blunt–faced dogs–you know the drill. Wonderful 20th Century stock villains. Heh. Heh. Heh.

And that turned out to be the key to the piece. Weill’s music is like humane Hindemith, substituting irony for machinelike coldness. It is all about mock grimness, like the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, so one can enjoy the creepiness without tears. Weill’s Symphony is really a very straightforward three-movement traditional piece, characterized by short propulsive chromatic motifs. Michael Francis threw himself into the score, wiggling his eyebrows sinisterly over short scary tremolo effects, which I call the “Weimar” tremolos, and holding back nicely in the slow movement, where a sudden burst of major-key ecstasy seems almost to transport the listener on a ride with ET. This passage has always reminded me of some of Bernard Herrmann’s more lyrical moments from the score to “Fahrenheit 451.” It was wonderfully done. So too were the cornettish moments which followed it.

The finale begins with woodwind arpeggios that sound as ecclesiastical as Brahms, but ends with a street chase and a serious accelerando culminating in the loudest tub thumping kettledrum thwack an orchestra can muster. The audience loved it. And Michael Francis received all the applause and foot shuffling from the San Francisco Symphony that a guest conductor could possibly hope for. He is clearly headed for a major career.

As for the philosophical underpinnings of crossover evenings? San Francisco is an accepting and harmonious place, The city happily bends gender, and nobody cares. But if the orchestra continues to bend genre, eventually nobody will care anymore, and that isn’t the same thing at all…

Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright

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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