Davies Hall, San Francisco
The San Francisco Symphony
Christian Reif, conductor
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano
Wagner – Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (1878)
Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major (1861)
Holst – The Planets, Opus 32 (1916)
A number of years ago now-disgraced Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit brought down the house at Davies Hall with Holst’s The Planets. I recall that evening well, a grand traditional performance. On a recent Sunday, though, San Francisco’s Resident Conductor, 28 year-old German-born Christian Reif, did better than that. He not only delivered a white-hot account of Holst’s interplanetary suite which will play well on Jupiter once the sounds get there. He jump-started what I hope will be a major career. As local music patrons are aware, Michael Tilson Thomas will be leaving our orchestra after another season. Under the circumstances, every guest conductor looms large in the institutional gimlet eye. Leonard Bernstein’s conducting career, after all, rocketed when Bruno Walter caught a bout of the flu. Christian Reif’s renown may well benefit from Charles Dutoit’s bout with moral turpitude….
However that plays out (and Reif has yet to show what he can do leading America’s major ensembles) there is no question that the conductor who found himself standing so collegially before the San Francisco Symphony belongs on the podium of an accomplished orchestra. Reif, unusually tall for a conductor, has a clear, sweeping beat and an expressive left hand capable of subtlety. Most importantly, he dances with the music. It moves through him. His body lifts it. His face expresses it. And when it comes time for excitement, there is something to be said for a conductor who can lunge forward and back excitedly without leaving in his wake a sense of excessive personal indulgence. Physical choreography matters. Conductors range historically from the totally wooden, like Richard Strauss, who never moved his feet or much of anything else on the podium, to the airborne and amorous, like Leonard Bernstein, who tempted one sometimes to shout “Get a room!’
It was impressive, too, to have Reif lead “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” without score—as a proper German should, one is tempted to assert. And he proved a fine accompanist in Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto, after a delay nearly as long as intermission to bring the piano level with the stage. The Davies Hall elevator is so slow, each piano concert features a bizarre tableau of stagehand pallbearers staring into the grave for so long you begin to wonder where Degas is when you need him.
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was worth the “weight” of the moment, so to speak. Bavouzet is an excitable pianist who stamps his feet and throws his arms in the air like a secondary conductor. He sports what I call French philosopher hair, the perfect frame for looking poetically into the middle distance. All would be for dramatic nought if he weren’t a fabulous pianist, though! The Liszt Second Concerto is an early model for concertos of a certain sort to come, where one senses sections more than movements and opening themes return to wind the piece down. The bravura piano part is so incandescently loud, it dwarfs nearly everything the orchestra does. Bavouzet and Reif made a splendid team. They both ended up on the last chord with arms flung in the air.
After intermission, it was time for a new hero, Edward Stephan, our remarkable timpanist. I made a point of sitting over the stage for the Holstian second half, eagerly awaiting the off-kilter rat-tat-tat which dominates Mars. I’ve never heard the rhythm so sharply accented before. Edward Stephan resembles a thin-faced Steve McQueen and conveys a similar level of quiet determined aggression. It was all to the good. This was the most kinetic, pounding performance I have yet heard live. It helps that the Davies Hall stage is extremely kind to percussion and brass, with beautifully defined overtones for the latter and a punch-in-the-gut solidity for anything with a drumface.
The performance was dramatic and beautiful overall, with a finely phrased hymn at the center of Jupiter. The Davies Hall Ruffati organ was shudderingly effective throughout. Only its huge upward glissando at the end of Saturn disappointed. The orchestra has just come crashing down on the very thought of one’s aging brittle bones. Time for the creepy glissando, like death zipping you up in a body bag. But where was it? Lost in the texture, it seems. Half of the performances of this piece get that wrong. But the music is so vibrant, it’s only a nit-pick.
Holst’s music ultimately vanishes into the ether with a wordless choir, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus was hidden on this occasion in the promenade area of the upper balcony. The balance was generally good, except that the voices faded into inaudibility about two bars before Reif finished conducting. But silence was still the message and grand applause the result. Christian Reif was nothing if not a diplomat at that moment, standing with the orchestra and doing collegial fist-bumps. Rah Rah for the orchestra! Definitely.
But Rah Rah for Christian Reif, too! This was a main chance. Fortune favors the prepared. He took it. And now, in the presidential saying of our day, “We’ll see what happens!”