Michael Francis conducts the San Francisco Symphony: Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Rachmininoff and Beethoven with Lisitsa and Buechner

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Michael Francis. Photo Chris Christodoulou.

Michael Francis. Photo Chris Christodoulou.

Summer & The Symphony
The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Friday, July 8, 2011

Michael Francis, Conductor
Valentina Lisitsa, Piano
Mussorgsky-Rimsky-Korsakoff:   A Night on Bald Mountain
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Opus 35

Saturday, July 9, 2011
Michael Francis, Conductor
Sara Davis Buechner, Piano
Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat  major, Opus 73, Emperor
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67

If the ebullience surrounding every squeak made by the San Francisco Symphony last Friday and Saturday is any measure, the orchestra’s summer season is in fine hands.  On the podium for much of the month has been Michael Francis, and waiting in the wings pianists Valentina Lisitsa and Sara Davis Buechner, all to dazzle and command in their own ways. About which more in a moment.

Summer concerts are a special art and a fine test for the temperament and ability of musicians. While accuracy and sight-reading abilities reflect the latter, there is a special dimension of celebration and showmanship involved, and the treacherous challenge to popularize without diminishing. So it is a delight to report that the programs I attended in Davies Hall sported no colored lights, no floral wreaths, trotted out no talkative or, worse, awkward masters of ceremony, and contained no “special occasion” works of dubious provenance. Just classic music, and very well played it was. Remarkably so, with what must have been little rehearsal.

Friday and Saturday’s audiences were hearteningly young, and if there was a concession to summer informality, it would be the sight of their elders “cutting a rug” to a dance band in the lobby before curtain time. I expect many of them had never seen “the Cleveland Chicken” done properly.  Say what you will of San Francisco, but the old generation didn’t fall off the turnip truck.

Of course, there was the usual seasonal “deconstruction” applied to onstage dress. Most of the orchestra showed up in sleek black summer clothes, as if preparing for a well-ventilated burglary. But the crimes of fashion were to be pleasing ones, except for a hapless and rather large second violinist, whose over-the-hill T-shirt stood out purple in the floodlights.

And on the podium, David Niven!  Well, not precisely. But Michael Francis, by all accounts, is what fifty years ago would have been called “A nice young Englishman.”  I suggest the notion as a winning combination of grace under pressure, considerate manners, good humor and uncomplaining good character. (This, mind you, is from a time before hard-edged rockers with bad complexions and worse behavior changed public perceptions of the British artistic persona…)

Francis exhibits remarkable ease on the podium. He belongs there. His gestures are easily understood by the audience and always seem just specific enough to be followed by an audible change in the orchestra.  And he uses his height to pull off moments of real lunging energy. But he does not preen in profile, like Maazel, or stand ceremonially before the orchestra looking like its owner at a dinner party, as Temirkanov does.  Once in a blue moon, Francis will close-out a diminuendo with a finger-flutter, learned no doubt from his LSO mentor Valery Gergiev, but that is the limit of his eccentricity.

Friday’s concert  opened with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, in the Rimsky-Korsakov version. This is a much tighter and more logical piece than the composer’s original, and benefits greatly from the soothing “dawn” episode Rimsky inserted to conclude the tone poem. The original version is ineptly orchestrated. Mussorgsky allows for sounds at the top and bottom of the spectrum, but doesn’t seem to know what harmonies to employ for filling-in the middle.  Mostly, to one’s amazement, he simply doesn’t bother.

Rimsky-Korsakov makes no such errors.  The piece virtually voices itself, and Michael Francis led a straightforward and percussively powerful account of it.  I wondered then, as I still do, if the consolational ending had enough breadth and stillness to it.  But summer concerts tend to be about energy, not nostalgia. A jury of sorts may still be out on how well Michael Francis does with the big tragic works and their rapt and emotional silences.

Similarly, I have encountered slower, eerie, brooding performances before of the Rachmaninoff  Second Concerto–very different from the straightforward, uncomplicated account set before us on Friday, but that is not to disparage it.  Indeed, Valentina Lisitsa’s debut in the piece was almost beyond stunning.

Michael Francis is well over six feet tall.  But the audience held its breath when Valentia Lisitsa made her entrance. It was as though a nearly seven-foot  mermaid statue had suddenly appeared to play the piano–with cascading hair in gold-leaf!  Listeners familiar with Litsitsa’s remarkable YouTube videos of Chopin—who have seen the way they are lit,  as well as how they are played—will not be surprised to learn of the spell she then wove with our audience.

Lisitsa exhibits a remarkable sense of visual atmospherics.  She plays with rolling movements of the hands, but leans her body in countervailing anticipation against long phrases, as though hang-gliding.  Because she is tall, these movements are very slow and hypnotic, like those of  a manta ray “flying” through the ocean.

Acoustically, I don’t know of any pianist whose passagework sounds more even and effortless than Lisitsa’s. But I think her special strength is to have found a perfect midrange sonority, ideal for a pianist who loves Chopin. Lisista’s playing sounds like a clear stream flowing over rounded pebbles, light, gleaming, glinting but never spiked and cutting. There exist heavy-toned, velvety-river pianists, like David Fray, who might make more of Brahms, perhaps. But I’ve never heard the center of the keyboard sound so cleanly satisfying, so tonally transparent.

Michael Francis has recently collaborated with Valentina Lisitsa in a recording of the Rachmaninoff Concerti, still “in the can,” and indeed, one could see that their interpretation last week had more nuance than a summer concert would lead one to anticipate. This was fast Rachmaninoff,  the same tempo taken by the composer himself in his 1929 recording with Leopold Stokowski.  And Lisitsa surely knows it well, since the second great melody in the first movement, which ultimately leads to a well-known horn passage, was performed with a slow sighing manner in its fall-away phrases–just as Rachmaninoff himself played it.  Another special high point was the conclusion of the second movement cadenza, where Lisitsa’s pedal technique allowed for some unfamiliar lingering dissonances.

All in all, this was the stuff of fascination, and the audience was simply beside itself with pleasure.  Lisitsa’s encore, the Chopin Nocturne in E-Flat, Op.9 No. 2, was breathlessly received.  Michael Francis perched on a riser to listen to it, at ease like a schoolboy.

Scheherazade followed after intermission, delivered in the usual two-fisted non-Russian manner. If this were a Russian orchestra and hours had been spent achieving subtleties of timbre and meaning, one might come up with something like Gergiev’s Kirov recording and say “Look what can be done with the music!” Though even there, Gergiev’s slow tempi can bore at times.  Michael Francis just played the music straight for excitement.  Perhaps Toscanini would have sounded like this. Timpani were tight, brass were forthright, the slow movement moved, and the whole thing crashed admirably on the rocks.

Saturday Night’s all-Beethoven concert had a similar directness to it. Michael Francis launched forth with an intense performance of  “The Creatures of Prometheus” overture, which is perhaps as close as Beethoven gets to the sure-fire whirlwind of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  One wonders how Beethoven could ever have achieved success as a ballet composer. His music is so un-sensous, seemingly blunt and awkward and so frequently written in octaves, that the whole notion seems as unlikely as Richard Nixon playing the piano. But then, of course, Richard Nixon DID play the piano…..

Sara Davis Buechner, continuing our  San Francisco tradition of tall pianists, next joined Michael Francis for an intense, riveting performance of the Beethoven “Emperor” concerto. A fantasy video of Valentina Lisitsa might show her performing underwater at an aquarium.  A fantasy video of Sara Davis Buechner would surely take place in a courtroom. An attractive woman in her own right, yet somehow a bit overpowering, Buechner conveys the relentless musical zeal of a forensic accountant. Perhaps one could term her the Dayle Hinman of pianists.

This was no-nonsense, detailed Beethoven, tonally unremarkable, which is perhaps a failing, but exciting and worth hearing. The slow movement did nothing to equal, though, the transcendently beautiful playing, still remembered after more than fifty years, achieved by the Chicago Symphony strings in their famous recording with Reiner and Cliburn.

Michael Francis brought the evening to a close with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The piece has been “under the fingers” of the orchestra lately with MTT, and a few years ago Blomstedt gave a fine, exciting and tight performance.  As before with Mchael Francis, swiftness and power were the order of the day.

Performances of Beethoven’s Fifth tend to fall into two categories: “Thundering Herd Beethoven” or “Attack-Dog Beethoven”.  This account was unrelenting and fast and chased you down.  But it would have benefitted from slower cadences as the four- note motif bit your arm off!  This is the trick Karajan eventually learned for his 1978 Beethoven cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic. Broaden the attack at the two brass and timpani iterations, charge ahead with the rest. This was almost over before it began.

One could argue, as well, that SF’s clarinets don’t sound sufficiently soft and “European” to do full justice to the Beethoven sonority, though the bassoon was spectacularly atmospheric. But then we are beginning to compare a one-rehearsal run-through with a higher notion of perfection than could be attempted here. And it isn’t every day that a conductor comes along who is so reliably exciting and such a quick study.

In the small world of symphony conductors, Michael Francis is the real thing. And the world has noticed.

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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