Charles Dutoit triumphs in Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony, with Kirill Gerstein in Beethoven

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Charles Dutoit

Charles Dutoit

Davies Hall, San Francisco
June 6, 2014

San Francisco Symphony
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93

There’s no question that the San Francisco Symphony is one of our great American orchestras. I go to as many of their Carnegie Hall concerts as I can, and if these are not a consistent joy, it has nothing to do with the musicians’ capabilities, rather with the vagaries of Michael Tilson Thomas’s talents and tastes. (See footnote below.) The concert I am reporting on had little to do with MTT beyond his successful maintenance of Herbert Blomstedt’s discipline. Charles Dutoit took over the podium at Davies Hall in early June as a visiting conductor, and I was fortunate to have been in San Francisco at the time. I attended the concert in the company of our excellent local critic, Steven Kruger, and, like Maestro Dutoit, I write here as a guest reviewer. Mr. Kruger will be back isoon.

This trip afforded me my first visit, both to Davies Hall and the Opera House, and I will indulge in an out-of-towner’s observations. The official and grandiose aspects of Civic Center Plaza are not the most pleasant, but the genteel, relaxed concert-goers making their way to the Hall humanized the atmosphere. One could smell money inside, but not the acrid kind that permeates New York’s major venues. There are terraces looking out towards the Opera House and the Plaza, which we could enjoy without finding ourselves caught in a bevy of smokers—only health-conscious Californians taking the air. The hall itself is peculiar: while the orchestra’s stage is surrounded by handsome woodwork (and part of the audience), which gives the area some focus and structure, the white-walled auditorium itself seemed amorphous, as if its canted surfaces and protrusions were cut out of Ivory soap or styrofoam. However one takes it as architecture, the acoustics are outstanding, as I observed, both from our assigned seat at the front of the floor and from the seat behind the orchestra, where Mr. Kruger led me for the second half. This is the location he favors, and the sound there is superb as well—present and full, with an attractive, well-balanced glow.

Like Bernard Haitink in his splendid concerts with the LSO at Avery Fisher Hall this past November, Dutoit chose to pair a Shostakovich symphony with a classical concerto. With Haitink, Emanuel Ax outshone himself in Mozart piano concertos—more assertively than is his wont—while on this occasion Kirill Gerstein addressed Beethoven’s earliest concerto, the second, Op. 19 in B Flat Major. Gerstein, trained in jazz before moving into classical music, strikes me as one of those young musicians, like Jonathan Biss, who is getting more exposure than he is ready for. He is gifted with a straightforward, energetic musicality, which has not yet been sufficiently refined to project his own individual character. At least he is not preening in mannerisms like Jeremy Denk, who has recently added Mozart to his repertoire to mutual disadvantage, as he demonstrated in his Carnegie Hall performance of Mozart K. 503 with the SFS last fall.1 Gerstein addressed the Beethoven with a thinnish, brilliant tone, which was consistent and efficient in carrying the classical virtues of balanced, refined phrasing and Gerstein’s characteristic propulsive energy. There was nothing luxuriant in the sound, and one might fault it for lacking variety. The first movement was stylish and lively enough, but it really didn’t show an individual stamp of striking interest. The slow movement was quite different. Here Gerstein revealed himself more fully in his eloquent singing line and affecting phrasing. This really couldn’t have been more satisfying. The finale was full of bouncing energy and showed some real panache. Gerstein succeeded in persuading me that he is worth listening to in those two final movements. The most interesting effort I have heard from him was at the Poisson Rouge, on its decidedly rough Yamaha piano. In addition to some mildly interesting Jazz-Classical crossover pieces, he played Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in his own idiosyncratic—actually experimental—way. This I found fascinating, and it bodes well for his new recording of the work.

Responses to Shostakovich symphonies are perhaps the most variable for any major composer. Almost anyone who knows them well or slightly will tell you that some are stronger than others. Between the exigencies of the Soviet state, Soviet critics, and Soviet audiences, his own conceptualization of a symphonic project, the condition of his mind, and his ambitions, he seems occasionally to have gone off track. (For a breezy, personal critical survey, see composer Phil Kline’s piece on WQXR.) Stefan Asbury’s honest, probing performance of the Eleventh Symphony “The Year 1905” (1957) with the TMC Orchestra last summer uncovered a certain exaggeration and hollowness in the work, and I was not the only listener to notice it. The Tenth Symphony (1953) stands out as the height of his achievement. Free from inflation in length, gesture, or dynamics, it was meticulously composed, with tight thematic relations and concentrated development of economical materials.

The Tenth seems also to be unquestionably sincere, although it remains as difficult as ever to put a literal interpretation on it as it is on any of Shostakovich’s more ambitious works. With all the interpretive speculation that has been lavished on this symphony and others, it is best to remember Shostakovich’s own statement: “Let them (the audience) listen and guess for themselves.” It is clear in any case that the composition was conditioned by Shostakovich’s weathering of the repressive Zhdanov Decree of 1948 and the death of Stalin. The brief, ferocious scherzo appears to be a portrait of Stalin. The composer introduces his musical monogram—DSCH—the the following movement, a gentle Allegretto, and develops it further in the intense emotional swings of the final movement, eventually to conclude in a joyful, triumphant celebration of the individual will against powerful forces of evil.

Dutoit approached this peak in Shostakovich’s work with full seriousness, respect, and all the impressive craftsmanship for which he is renowned. The San Francisco strings reached from the darkest, roughest timbres to a silvery glow. The winds played with all the virtuosity one might expect from a great orchestra, while remaining within the weave of the ensemble. They didn’t permit themselves the solo turns so liberally indulged in by the Boston Symphony or New York Philharmonic—all the better for the cohesion of Shostakovich’s writing. Dutoit is a master of coherence and structure, after all, as well as the consciousness of a work’s function. He approaches a stage work as a stage work and a symphony as just that—in Shostakovich’s case a work of absolute music. For Shostakovich the program is in the listener’s mind and response—not that it isn’t worth studying problems of interpretation through competent scholarship, for example Blokker and Fanning.2 Dutoit’s strong-minded focus on composition and structure, as well as the San Francisco Symphony’s superb playing brought across the Tenth’s huge emotional impact all the more powerfully.

  1. Denk seems rather less mannered in works like Ives’ Concord Sonata or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Presumably, unlike a Mozart piano concerto, these pieces give him enough activity and technical challenge for him to concentrate on the music. I heard an earlier attempt at Mozart in a performance of K. 467 with the Oberlin Symphony Orchestra which was slightly more restrained and therefore more successful. It seemed very much as if Denk were making his first tentative steps in Mozart and that he had a long way to go. K. 503 seemed a leap in the wrong direction. That concert on the whole was one of MTT’s less successful turns at bat. He conducted a weak performance of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, as if dramatic tonal music were an alien language (although this didn’t seem to be a problem in the Mozart. It seems as if the pianist exercised a corrective influence on the conductor, although certainly not a reciprocal one. Dutoit, on the other hand, might have prevailed with some salubrious influence on Denk’s excursions, as I recall his rock-solid accompaniment to Lang Lang’s ridiculous display in Beethoven’s First Piano concerto last year at Tanglewood!). Then with his usual panache he conducted Steven Mackey’s Eating Greens, an over-the-top celebration of New Orleans night life, complete with hangover, which seemed alternately absorbing, entertaining, and irritating in its excesses. (Orchestral color seems to have more force for MTT that harmonic progression.) However, we have to remember that this kind of flamboyance has its honored place in the tradition of American art music: still, Mackey is no Ives. In the final piece, Copland’s Symphonic Ode, MTT hit a home run in a superb work by one of our great composers, which he conducted with total familiarity and commitment.
  2. Roy Blokker with Robert Dearling, The Music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Symphonies, London, 1979; David Fanning, The Breath of the Symphonist—Shostakovich’s Tenth, London, 1988. Beware the journalistic and pop treatments—Phil Kline’s excepted on humorous grounds!
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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