Davies Hall, San Francisco
May 12, 2017
The San Francisco Symphony
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
Sibelius – Karelia Suite, Opus 11 (1893)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major, K. 482 (1785)
de Falla – Three Dances from The Three-Cornered Hat (1919/1924)
Debussy – La Mer (1905)
If you ever wonder how Sibelius’ music seems to come in two styles, one bardic, noble, warmly patriotic and slightly thumpy; the other austere, cerebral, craggy and interplanetary, think Karelia. This is the eastern portion of Finland near the White Sea, where ancient forms of native song and poetry still obtained at the turn of the last century. As Vaughan Williams scoured England for folksong and Bartók transcribed them in Hungary, a similar romantic enthusiasm for Finnish roots swept young Finns of the day. Karelianism, it was called, and Sibelius’ suite derives from the music he wrote for the Karelia Pageant of 1893, which represented something of a culmination of the movement. The opening “Intermezzo”, otherwise a contradiction in terms, was in fact used to separate two tableaux within the festivities.
Sibelius’ Karelia music is all about light, air, affectionate strings, high spirits and irrepressible emotion: the joy of zipping along. I especially love the clarinets in the last movement march. As it gets going and announces itself, they stick their tongues out at it, repeatedly! Charles Dutoit and the San Francisco Symphony were in proper youthful spirit for the music, though Dutoit is now past eighty. The shoe polish hairdo he has sported for decades creaks of coffin lids and makes you wonder if there isn’t some part of Switzerland that is forever Romania. But more power to him!
Emanuel Ax, ever professorial and fluent, if not particularly intending to dazzle, joined us for Mozart’s less frequently heard 22nd Piano Concerto. There is an art to listening to Mozart. When I was young, I felt as my seat-mate Joyce did: that everything was predictable. It takes experience to realize how revolutionary the music must have sounded at the time and to enjoy it as Mozart’s audience might have. K. 482 is nearly a concerto for orchestra. It employs clarinets almost like operatic voices, with piccolos swirling around them, features all sorts of syncopated plucked strings, low woodwind effects and even, in the slow movement, full orchestra trills in dialog with the piano, this more than a hundred years before Bruckner and Stenhammar showed the world what one could do with them. Mozart invents experimental melodies, a little harder to recall than usual, at least until the skipping rondo tune which brings the concerto home.
I expect the music would have wowed audiences with its modernity. Pieces which do that tend to lodge in memory more as experiences than with melodic recall. And so it was, though Emanuel Ax was received with many curtain calls by a knowing audience. And Dutoit was fun to watch. There is always a chuckle-worthy Francophone moment. As the slow movement was about to begin, Dutoit touched his heart, leaned over and cupped his ear before the first downbeat. (Shades of Georges Prêtre, roasted by the New York Times in 1970 for daring to stroke his cheek in Sibelius!)
I was intrigued to see Charles Dutoit appear to drop decades in age, as he steered towards the concert’s Franco-Latin second half. Manuel de Falla’s ballet, The Three Cornered Hat, is a staple of the repertory. Its three concert dances make for an exciting sample of the music. My only criticism of them, perhaps, is the slight sense of confusion they convey to a first time listener. Once does not easily distinguish one dance from another. But Dutoit and the orchestra were on fire with explosive Spanish zest, expressed via satisfying crash-bang and slinky eroticism where needed. You only need to bring on the castanets, and suddenly Dutoit is waving wildly overhead and pumping the stage floor with his baton, as if fifty years old and drilling for oil!
It’s the ocean playing tricks in La Mer, of course. One isn’t concerned with human flirtation or motive, just with the heavings of a rather heavy northern sea. This isn’t Jacques Ibert’s Ports of Call, with its tropical shimmering heat and mirages one can nearly see. The is the North Atlantic, occasionally serene in a windy sort of way, but ultimately a creature of massive assault on cliffs and inlets. It’s remarkable how successful Debussy is in capturing the sea, without investing the proceedings with either optimism or pessimism. Even though the greatest wave crash ever composed, at the end of the first movement and then again at the conclusion of the piece, is expressed as a chorale, it’s a remarkably inhuman one: just the waves and undertow, Mister.
No one performs this music better than Charles Dutoit. He knows every fleck of spray. The orchestra did itself proud: water everywhere. Yes, the ocean. And your thoughts? You really don’t want to mess with it.