Two at Davies Hall: San Francisco Symphony/Conlon; Staatskapelle Dresden/Harding

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The Critic at Davies Hall.

The Critic at Davies Hall.

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
James Conlon, Conductor
Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wagner – Overture to Die Meistersinger (1872)
Bruch – Concerto No. 1 in g Minor, Op. 26, (1867)
Joshua Bell, Violin
Dvořák – Overtures
“In Nature’s Realm“ Op.91, (1892)
“Carnival“ Op. 92, (1892)
“Othello“ Op. 93, (1892)

The Dresden Staatskapelle
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Daniel Harding, Conductor
Sunday, October 24, 2010

Schumann – “Manfred” Overture, Opus 115, (1849)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Opus 58, (1806)
Rudolf Buchbinder, Piano
Brahms – Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, (1877)

A tale of two orchestras, two conductors, two soloists, several accents, two continents… Indeed. Two recent musical evenings, performed back to back by our own San Francisco Symphony under James Conlon, and by the legendary Dresden Staatskapelle, on tour with Daniel Harding, were highly revealing of the differences which can still exist in the identity, tradition and manner of orchestras. By programming emotionally mainstream works, containing few neuroses or cataclysms, both conductors necessarily brought the focus of the audience’s attention to beauty of execution, national perceptions of orchestral warmth and tone painting, and to their own manner of leadership.

This reviewer vividly recalls the splash made by James Conlon at Juilliard in the 1970s. His mature and plangent way with works like the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia suggested the birth of a major “conducting animal,“ as Esa-Pekka Salonen would later come to call it. One expected for him the sort of meteoric career that had quickly landed Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm of the London Symphony or Daniel Barenboim on the podium of virtually everything else. Instead, Conlon seemed to disappear into the opera houses and radio orchestras of Europe. One waited for the unforgettable tour performance, the special recording deemed the best of something, the great appointment. Somehow, it never quite happened. Conlon seemed a bit hidden away, like Blomstedt in those years, earnestly deepening his craft.

Occasionally, though, there is a secondary career path to renown in the conducting world — through musical advocacy. In recent years Jose Serebrier and Neeme Jarvi have adopted neglected repertoire and built reputations around it. These days, James Conlon has become known for reviving the works of composers banned and otherwise interfered with, not to mention killed, by the National Socialists. In particular, he has become a point man for the improving reputation of Alexander Von Zemlinsky. This time, however, his focus was upon the rarely done but deserving late Dvořák Overtures, performed as a cycle.

Conlon opened with Wagner’s Overture to “Die Meistersinger,“ carried off with a somewhat aggressive emphasis on the last two notes of its trumpet march. This is probably forgivable, given the fact that there isn’t very much conductors can really do with a piece which seems to play itself. Ozawa might take the overture in a more stately manner these days. Barbirolli used to insert a hiccup into the trumpet part. Ormandy tended to lap soothing phrases from the central portion down upon the listener like cashmere sweaters in Gatsby’s closet. That is about the limit to what can be done. Interestingly, though, nationalistic sonority is less important here than one would suppose. The piece sounds German and indeed, quite itself, whether the woodwinds have a special German sound or not. This is a characteristic of Wagner and his intensely psychological inner world. One does not worry in Wagner whether bird-calls sound accurately like loons or geese, but more whether they reflect some pointed inner world. Wagner’s forests murmur in the mind.

That is probably true of the Max Bruch Concerto No. 1, as well, or would be, if it had a a whit of Wagnerian introspection. But I did not find myself speculating about whether it would sound inappropriate at the hands of the SFS, as though performed with an American accent. I was more amused to sense that, despite the lofty aims and reputations of the Beethoven and Brahms concerti, audiences most probably prefer hearing this open hearted, memorable Bruch work, so untouched by academicism. They were fortunate to experience Joshua Bell perform it. Bell is now arguably the best known violinist in the world, as Perlman was in his heyday, and to his credit, he never sounds bored.

Joshua Bell’s violin sonority represents a sort of happy medium between the electrified spiderweb of Jascha Heifetz and the heavy dairy of Isaac Stern. At times it reveals some of the beautiful midrange darkness one finds in Zuckerman’s playing, but with a tremendous difference. Bell does not scrape. Ever. Indeed, he rears up like a cobra before every new phrase , then breaks the percussive fall of his strike on bended knee. The result is is a violin sonority riding on shock absorbers. And a silky thing it is.

This totally enjoyable collaboration wound up with a clever encore. Bell set out to play what seemed like a rarefied etude, but it soon transformed itself into an inventive set of variations on “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” I would like to believe Bell, himself, composed it, so I did not investigate further. Bravo.

It was the Dvořák Overtures which raised more questions for me. Dvořák’s musical world is nothing if not tonally specific. It describes things and describes them vividly. What the listener then makes of “nature, life and love” depends somewhat on how suggestible you want to be over the murder of Desdemona or about other specific events described in the program notes , or in this case by an admirably clever talk James Conlon gave before conducting the three Dvořák overtures. If you simply approach the music on it own terms, though, there is a fine mature nostalgia in all three overtures. In particular, the emotional wind-down of “In Nature’s Realm” and the profoundly hushed raptness at the beginning of “Othello” will break the heart — -even as as the “Largo” from the “New World Symphony” does not. It may say something about James Conlon that his conducting was more concerned with moving things along than achieving this effect. Similarly, the San Francisco woodwinds ultimately sounded too general, as though destined for the great plains, and insufficiently birdlike to evoke the Czech landscape. None of this, though, detracted from the considerable fire and joy of the performance, and idiomatic or not, there is always something wonderful about the sheer zest of Dvořák. Who else would conclude a piece about Othello with a furiant, not to mention one that sounds like someone slamming a door behind himself?!

Sunday night’s audience, by contrast, may have wondered at first if it was being stood up! The venerable Dresden Staatskapelle carries with it a number of dignified social traditions, one of which is to remain offstage until the last moment, so the Davies listeners chatted amiably before an empty stage, until the entire ensemble suddenly appeared from all directions at once, tuned-up for no more than 10 seconds and lapsed into formal expectation. They were soon joined by a lean, decisive-looking Daniel Harding, who radiates nervous energy, and launched headlong into the dramatic syncopations of the Schumann “Manfred” overture.

The Dresden Staatskapelle is unusual in a number of ways, some of it old-fashioned. There are few women in the orchestra, and the ensemble projects a certain very German gravity in its seated demeanor. For this instance, Harding massed the orchestra’s strings almost entirely on the left, a slightly unbalanced 60/40 distribution on stage. It soon became clear why. Listening to the Dresden Staatskapelle, one is in the presence of a very specific orchestral sonority. This is a big touring sedan orchestra, richly but tightly sprung on hard rubber. The Vienna and Berlin strings are fuller, yet somehow not really deeper. Above the stave, flutes, clarinets and oboes demonstrate a remarkably individual range of sound, most of it related to nature; and the overall result is a combination of gold leaf and delicate nuttiness on a tightly moving ebony bass. No American orchestra would be able to replicate it.

As the Schumann progressed, it became evident that Daniel Harding has a talent for structure. This was an increasingly big performance, gloriously ratcheted-up, as layer after layer of sound was added, each justifying itself in a different “accent.” American orchestras sometimes give the impression that the purpose of woodwinds is to play “white,“ to “fill in” notes that violins, violas, celli and basses happen not to play. The Dresdeners remind one that oboes squawk delicately from nature, that piccolos don’t sound at all like flutes, that bassoons purr like big cats, and that clarinets are individuals. The deeply varied sound layers made much more of this overture than I have heard before and gave the lie to the notion that Schumann’s orchestration was in any way so thick as to smother its own personality. Quite the contrary. Indeed, the central section, performed here like something from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, vividly revealed hints of Wagner, so much was to be found in it.

And what about Daniel Harding? He conducts like a young Maazel, leaping from one side of the orchestra to another. James Conlon, by contrast, has a tendency to turn towards a section already playing full tilt — and then urge them onward frantically. This can sometimes look ineffective, though most conductors do it to show off their profiles. Harding does not so much turn to a section of players as lunge at them, and they come back at him like a squash ball. It was astonishing to see this level of electricity and response. One’s only caveat might be the sense that, like David Robertson, he will tend to favor energy over evocation, only perhaps with an extra impassioned edge. Robertson radiates contented fellowship. Harding is more tightly wound.

The evening next proceeded to a wonderfully steeped performance of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, played by Rudolph Buchbinder. Buchbinder is a serious-looking middle-aged man, whose demeanor suggests perhaps the presidency of a former Soviet Republic. But at the piano he was all solid velvet, fingers almost on rubber wheels, like the Paris Métro Ligne No. 1 (and like the rest of the orchestra). From the soft opening declarations of the piece, he was of one mind with the players. Over and again during the Beethoven, one felt the mahogany of profound identification with this music and its long familiar place in the performers’ hearts. The first movement built to a wonderfully terraced coda, after revealing yet again unexpected clarinet dovetailings with piano and strings. Its cadenza was filled with tasteful rubati and imagination. The slow central movement was quite gruff, with aggressive basses, but gentle on Buchbinder’s side of things. And the finale seemed to alternate somewhere between barks of joy and the sleek purposefulness of a Doberman.

And that tells you a lot about the Brahms Second Symphony, which followed the interval. I have remonstrated before in these pages about ponderous contemporary Brahms performances in the United States. Over the years I have heard too many overweight, clotted sounding interpretations of this piece, rendered nearly intolerable by the out-of-proportion exposition repeat Brahms never should have written into the score. This deadly monumentality seems to come from the successfully impressed notion that Germans are serious people who write important music, and that Brahms was the most serious of same. What a delight, then, to find the piece not only iconic, but vibratingly alive in Daniel Hardings hands. This was a Brahms Second like the ones older listeners would have heard in the 1940s or 1950s from such a Dorati, Szell, Van Beinum or Toscanini — swift, punchy, exciting, joyous, romantically graceful — alive.

Add to this the special Dresden characteristics — remarkable purring effects from low basses and woodwinds — and Daniel Harding’s sleek but not rigid approach, allowing for a broadening of the “lullaby” the second time around, and one has the makings of satisfying Brahms. The second movement was possibly lacking the glutinous dreamscape to which one becomes accustomed, but the unusually nutty winds, and flutes so active they seemed to be playing parts I’d never heard before, gave the movement character, and I didn’t miss it. The coda of this movement was unusual for its suppressed violence in the drums. Harding conducted the timpani beats as though they were referential to the ending of the First Symphony’s opening movement. It was satisfying to know the players understood the whole context of their music. The short Allegretto emerged in a very German manner indeed, conveying a kind of silky nasality, and the finale, to my delight was very very fast, but fully in control, every moment alive with something, once again replete with unanticipated interactions among the woodwinds. The Symphony ended with a joyous yawp at full power — music again — at last!

The orchestra looked a bit bemused at the audience, as they took their curtain calls. I don’t imagine our informality here in San Francisco appears very German, despite all the Teutonic personalities which seem to materialize in Davies Hall when a German orchestra plays — but no matter. The Dresden Staatskapelle has been itself for more than 400 years. They stood —  they shook hands with each other like proper Germans — they left. And that was that.

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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