Davies Hall, San Francisco
May, 12, 2018
The San Francisco Symphony
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Gautier Capuçon, ‘cello
Ibert – Escales (1922)
Saint-Saëns – Cello Concerto No. 1 in A-Minor, Opus 33 (1872)
Guillaume Connesson – E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare (2015)
Respighi – The Pines of Rome (1924)
There’s much to be said for keeping personal politics away from concert music. Composers know this. Audiences prefer pictorialism and evocation to propaganda. That’s why they are in the hall. Even Shostakovich, chronicler of Soviet political events, composed that way. But not all critics have the self-discipline to leave smug prejudice at home. The San Francisco Chronicle’s local reviewer, who normally precedes New York Arts into print and shall be nameless here, launched an atavistic attack this week on Stéphane Denève’s program choice of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, calling the work “proto-fascist” and condemning it’s march up the Appian Way as an appeal to nationalist sentiment. How ridiculous!
Quite apart from being a gratuitous attack–rather late at that–on a piece of music audiences have loved for more than 94 years, I think this comment would greatly have surprised the fiery anti-fascist Toscanini, who championed Respighi’s music throughout his career. Much of history is miserable and its grandeur colored by ambiguity. If we are lucky, we can appreciate the drama of human events through art, literature and music, without having to approve of everything that happened in the past. We might, heaven forbid, even enjoy military marches. Personally, I love Respighi’s evocative ability to make a Roman legion crash to parade-rest at my feet. In any case, political correctness in music surely leads to the question of whose politics are to be considered. My own grandmother was murdered by East German Communists. Does this mean I should refuse to listen to Kurt Weill, who approved of the regime? When we hear the 1812 Overture, must we process footnote-worthy assessments of Napoleon and the Czars while we listen? I doubt it.
The simple truth is that Stéphane Denève put together for this concert a magnificently enjoyable set of orchestral postcards framing Saint-Saëns’ delicious and slithery Cello Concerto No. 1. The desideratum was audience pleasure, and it was achieved. In fact, this was one of the most memorable evenings of the season. Denève is in his element with French music of this kind. Physically, he’s tall, slightly stooped and oddly resembles Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, viewed from behind, with slightly stiff, bearlike arm movements. Facing the orchestra, though, he was on fire, anything but lugubrious and more a wild man than you would expect. The look on his face as the evening’s final chord became impossibly louder was worth the price of admission.
Contemporary composer Guillaume Connesson’s short work (with a lengthy title) translates as “The river appears clear in the valley”. That’s exactly what it sounds like. The Chronicle, no surprise, roasted it for being cinematic and accessible. But the piece was a milestone for me. In 55 years of concertgoing, I’ve never come home from hearing a concert wanting to play the contemporary piece on the program again for personal pleasure. But I did this time. Denève has recorded a Connesson CD with the Brussels Philharmonic for DGG, and I spent part of the late evening listening again to E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare. If Vincent d’Indy were alive today, he would have composed this. And if Lana Turner were still making movies, well….
I was also pleased to encounter Ibert’s Ports of Call actually programmed in concert, for once, not just appearing on CD. We need more French music like this at the SFS. Ibert’s short triptych breaks no ground harmonically. It’s not meant to be a structural advance on La Mer, but it’s inspired music, even so. One is reminded that the Mediterranean is warm and that Debussy tone-painted a cold Northern sea. Ibert’s special talent is to suggest mirages in the waves of heat and make the audience swoon from sheer sensual exoticism. The middle Tunis movement hypnotizes like a psychiatrist swinging a pocket-watch. You could be forgiven for envisioning a camel slowly undulating towards you, like the iconic desert scene in Lawrence of Arabia.
Gautier Capuçon can sometimes buzz and scrape at his instrument from sheer energy, but on this occasion the French cellist managed a rich romantic tone throughout and a lovely sylph-like quality in Saint-Saëns’ slow movement. This part of the concerto takes place on little cat feet, an intimate whispery habit Saint-Saëns adopted earlier for the slow movement of his Second Symphony. I’m always struck buy how clever this composer was. He innovated so successfully, you mistake him for being more creative than he was and almost blame yourself for liking the music as much as you do.
That might not be the wrong approach for taking in Respighi’s greatest tone poem, either. Pines of Rome’s special talent is for taking you back two thousand years and making you smell the olive oil. And yes, it features a creepy army marching at dawn. But the music fascinates in evoking mysteries of the night and a sense of living Roman history. It’s not about politics. It’s an atmospherically lit rumination on grandeur past and all the mysteries of the Roman Empire which still fascinate. What doesn’t fascinate is learning that a major newspaper’s critic approaches his work with caricature-level prejudices. Shame on the Chronicle! And I’m being nice about it….