The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Friday, February 1, 2013
Charles Dutoit, conducting
James Ehnes, violin
Ravel – Rapsodie espagnole (1908)
Lalo – Symphonie espagnole,Opus 21 (1874)
Elgar – “Enigma” Variations, Opus 36 (1899)
One of the delights in having Charles Dutoit make a guest appearance with our orchestra is the near certainty that his program will avoid unduly tragic or neurotic emotions. Dutoit is a masterful conductor of affectionate and sensuous music. We sometimes forget how much of it there still is in our repertory—and how audiences might occasionally appreciate fragrant gardens over wars and revolutions. But this cuts several ways for Dutoit. Tragic works by Mahler and Shostakovich rule these days. And Dutoit’s interpretation of Mahler’s Sixth was once dismissed by the manager of a great orchestra as sounding like “Daphnis and Alma!” But give him something with lover’s courtly appeal, the lushness of nature, or a touch of aristocratic elegance, and Dutoit is hard to beat.
A music-lover once asked me why Ravel was considered a great composer. He didn’t think so, pointing to the lack of this or that in Ravel’s opus. But I found the answer surprisingly simple: Ravel evokes life’s eerie but safer mysteries and does so better than anyone else. Even among impressionists… Put it this way: Debussy’s music quivers metaphorically with emotion, like a leaf in the wind. Ravel gives you the memory of the leaf. But there is little room for human sadness in his music, or for genuine hearts of darkness.
Ravel depicts everyday sense-perceptions as icons—things which go bump in the night—graveyards—a cat meowing in the bushes—jasmine-flowers rustling in moonglow—a piano strumming quietly like Segovia in candlelight. Ravel’s climaxes are heady, sensuous, but as harmless and distanced as fireworks. And where his music takes on drama or death, it is never direct. La Valse is as unsettling as a drug trip, (or at least a case of the “whirlies”). The “Dead Infanta” is a cool abstraction. And nobody weeps over Daphnis and Chloe. In the end, such emotions as we experience in Ravel have more to do with timeless grace and alabaster. He is our headstone composer. Fossils for the ear…
Charles Dutoit was in fine fettle for this program, in no way himself embalmed despite his many years, and the orchestra did him proud in Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. There is still, however, a tendency for the San Francisco Symphony to play dynamics as though they were notated by Copland. In the final movement, “Feria”, the music calms down into one of those nighttime garden evocations Ravel is so good at. Off in the bushes, a feline announces its attentions to the moon. But in Davies Hall, it sounded as though somebody stepped on the poor cat’s tail! The audience came away happy, though—dog lovers, no doubt!
It’s astonishing how often French music written in the 1870s sounds martial. The French had just come away from one of their periodic defeats and occupations by the Germans, when Lalo composed his Symphonie Espagnole. A new French pride was at work. Lalo, himself, was from a military background, like Rimsky-Korsakoff, the only other major composer of the era to have been an officer. The music is really a violin concerto in five short movements despite its name, featuring lilting Spanish-inflected melodies and a simple structure. But the piece struts about too much, melodramatically declaiming itself in octaves and coming to heel-clicking marcato stops. Much of Lalo’s music does this tin-soldier stuff, the cello concerto as well, and notably the finale of his Symphony in g minor.
The violin part, though, is virtuoso and reflective of Sarasate’s Spanish influence—just as the last two Saint-Saens concertos are. Indeed, much of the writing sounds like Saint-Saëns. But the orchestral part squawks away at the listener like a large parrot, and this bird doesn’t have a whole lot to say. Fortunately, the Rondo finale carries the day. Here it sounded like a conga line at the village dance! James Ehnes, whose light and aristocratic violin tone reminds listeners a bit of Heifetz, did not trick himself into overdoing the piece but spun it nicely across the footlights.
Both Ehnes and Dutoit were wearing traditional white-tie “headwaiter’s” concert dress. This is so rare, that their stage appearance together seemed almost new, attractive and fashionable—certainly compared to the bizarre outfits one routinely expects to see these days. The Davies Hall stage has witnessed in recent seasons a remarkable number of soloists wearing black pajamas, a conductor whose “jacket” was sleeveless, and a singer who took off his shoes, which were made of wood. Does the term “counterfeit individualism” ring a bell…? General Eisenhower, claiming no artistic ability at all, surely did a better job designing his own five-star “bus-driver’s” jacket!
There was nothing counterfeit in the Elgar which followed, fortunately, just the presence of its own very famous “Enigma.” Two decades ago, Charles Dutoit recorded the “Variations” with his Montreal Symphony, but their CD disappeared in short order. Dutoit’s players from that era sounded more like L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande than anything else, and their instrumental textures didn’t work very well for Elgar. It was all too bright and light. But in the intervening years, Dutoit has clearly made the piece his own, characterizing each variation with energy and beauty. The key to the music lies in the power brought to its syncopations, especially from the percussion. Elgar was unafraid of cymbals and timpani—indeed he opened up a whole new era of brass and drum writing for English composers.
So I am happy to report that W.M.B.’s door-slam, in the fourth variation, was highly effective. The dog bounding down to the water in variation seven didn’t lumber. Nimrod was gorgeous and moving. Over and beyond the famous quote from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, the Romanza delivered wonderful maritime engines, reciprocating slowly as the ship passed by…and the Ruffati Organ in Davies hall provided admirable depth with transparency for Elgar’s self portrait finale. As always, this warmhearted and affectionate music was a great success, and the central “Nimrod” variation mesmerizing.
The very “enigma” of the piece may in fact reveal itself there, in the ninth variation. Fifty years ago, when I first learned the music, the usual description for “Nimrod” referred to a walk Elgar took with August Jaeger, his publisher, and to a discussion they had about Beethoven’s slow movements. I always thought this missed the rather evident fact that “Nimrod” was passionate love music. Seems I was right. Elgar’s most important quote about this speaks of a walk in the woods and of “something that happened…” And recent scholarship, particularly by Byron Adams,1 suggests that Elgar was bisexual, known to have had an affair with Jaeger, and that many of “the friends depicted therein” were known in musical circles to be gay or bisexual as well. The “enigma” may simply be the theme of forbidden love. After all, as Elgar said to Cardinal Newman late in the game, “All my life I have been a…..”
None of this matters—and even less so in this vastly more tolerant era. The music speaks for itself, fortunately. And nobody appreciates less than the British being asked personal questions about sex. But scholars have twisted themselves into pretzels for 114 years trying to figure out what shadow-melody or figured bass might have been intended by Elgar. He did, after all, say it was obvious…
“Pop Goes the Weasel”, anyone…?
- Byron Adams, “The ‘Dark Saying’ of the Enigma: Homoeroticism and the Elgarian Paradox,” 19th-Century Music, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Spring, 2000), pp. 218-235 ↩