Davies Hall, San Francisco
November 6, 2015
The San Francisco Symphony
Yan Pascal Tortelionductor
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano
Jonathan Dimmock, organ
Bizet – Music from the Carmen Suites (1874)
Ravel – Piano Concerto in D for the Left hand (1930)
Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Opus 78, “Organ” (1886)
Yan Pascal Tortelier was levitating with exuberance last Friday.
Every good conductor shows passion, of course, even those untempted by choreography. But audiences love the ones who take to the air and defy gravity—most famously Leonard Bernstein, who did so wildly and erotically—but also the occasional anomaly. I once witnessed long-gone Swedish conductor Sixten Ehrling, famously reserved, conduct Respighi’s Roman Festivals in his seventies, leaping about the Carnegie Hall stage like a red devil from Hades. Only the trident was missing.
Tortelier radiates benevolence on the podium. He’s a tall, formal Frenchman at heart. He bows and shakes hands in classic tails. But once underway, he presents more like a beaming United States Senator showing off origami. His technique is unusual. Tortelier conducts without baton. Unlike Gergiev, whose liberated fingers flutter in competition with butterfly wings, Tortelier treats his hands like airplanes. He dives and swoops with them like an RAF pilot illustrating the Battle of Britain. And then, at big moments, he leaps into the air, landing knees-bent and arms-lifted like Neil Armstrong on the moon. Only the space suit is missing. But his energy and simple joy are matched by good musicianship—though one could argue that quiet introspection and subtlety are not at the core of Tortelier’s psyche—all of which made his program choices utterly appropriate.
Bizet’s Carmen, for all its virtues, is not harmonically complex, especially subtle nor emotionally draining. But its tunes are evocative and memorable. My seat-companion leaned over and said “Candy”! She was right. Fortunately, they outlast the many uses to which we have put them in supermarkets and elevators. I can never get quite enough of the wistfulness to be found in the Intermezzo, which fades away canonically—as if following itself home. Tortelier and the orchestra caught the spirit from the first moment and marched right off to Spain.
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who joined the program for the Ravel concerto, is also notably a French intellectual “type” in demeanor, sporting Bernard-Henri Levy “big hair,” complete with bald spot and bemused gaze into the middle distance. Indeed, he lifted his chin in such dignified contemplation from the piano bench, that he almost fell over backwards at the first tutti. Bavouzet has made quite an impact in recent times, especially with Bartok. Indeed, I might argue Bartokian spikeyness spilled over into his notion of Ravel. But this was an extroverted evening, so no harm done. I did wonder, though, if Bavouzet’s piano was fully in tune in the bass. He used an enormous amount of pedal—and sometimes the lowest note rang out oddly when hammered hard.
Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand is the most famous of its genre—dedicated to Paul Wittgenstein (the philosopher’s brother), who lost an arm in the First World War. Wittgenstein, as it happened, performed the piece without ever really liking it. Indeed, he far preferred a similar left-hand work by Franz Schmidt. But this is the concerto which made it into the repertory. We normally associate Ravel with fluid refinement, great sensual beauty and a certain emotional distance. So it’s almost surprising to hear the awkward growling and blattiness with which the piece stirs itself to life and then confront, at its wistful center, beauty which breaks your heart. The concerto is one of music’s fascinating odd ducks. Half the time it sounds as though it’s been written backwards by accident. No matter. The audience went crazy. Intermission. Time for a vanity slink….
Date night strolling is always amusing at Davies Hall. Over the years I’ve witnessed everything from wild necking to the presence of an “Uncle Sam” in striped pants and top hat, the kind who used to point at you from billboards and sell savings bonds. This time the hall staircase was festive—decked-out in Latin colors for a Dia de los Muertos program. Behind everyone loomed City Hall, lit-up in cobalt blue. But much of the audience seemed taken with two dramatic Asian lesbians, six feet tall, wearing black dresses and seven-inch spike heels, who undulated slowly arm-in-arm down the promenade in perfect synchronicity. Their stroll had a Brucknerian inevitabilty to it. The bar crowd parted for them like waters for Moses.
Back in the hall for the greater glory of France, I was delighted to see our timpanist had adopted hard sticks in the Organ Symphony. If that seems an odd comment, I should mention that the opening allegro sounds a bit like a telegrapher getting lost and going crazy, until it is finally cadenced with an emphatic ba-da-bum. Here a powerful rat-tat-rat propelled the symphony nicely forward.
When it came time for the organ’s entrance in the Adagio, I noted with rue that no organ really sounds that good with a short reverberation time. The world’s most famous recording of the Saint-Saëns Third was made in Symphony Hall, Boston, in 1959 by Charles Munch. Part of its excellence derives from an empty hall with a 2.2 second reverberation time. Here, we were dealing with a full house and 1.7 second delay, vivid for orchestral concerts, but too dry to blend an organ perfectly. I had the sense throughout that the organ was too loud and its entrances audibly too abrupt. The lowest notes sounded odd, as they were clearly evoking sympathetic vibrations from the building itself. Something was rattling, and no time delay softened the sound.
A further effect of this dryness is the sense of being in a small Church. Saint-Saëns was an organist for decades. But many secular listeners might find the feeling too strong, all pew wax, perfumed incense and psychological claustrophobia. Saint-Saëns was not the only such composer. Much of César Franck’s orchestral music from the period also suffers a kind of ecclesiastical prudery. The great cathedrals of France, to this day, are largely bereft of music. The organ was always “the thing.”
All thoughts of this are dispelled in the last half of the Organ Symphony, of course, with its pianos chasing each other around the Scherzo and the bass drum, brasses and cymbals giving the pipes a run for their money. As the coda wound itself up and let loose, Tortelier’s simple joy was palatable. He mouthed wildly the final kettledrum notes, levitated one last time and landed sideways facing the organ console—and the audience—to welcome the end with simple open arms.