Davies Hall, San Francisco
The San Francisco Symphony
January 26, 2019
Christian Reif, conductor
Johannes Moser, cello
Strauss – Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888)
Lutosławski – Cello Concerto (1970)
Prokofiev – Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100 (1944)
I’m often struck, when I attend concerts, with how much it matters what we see happening onstage. Ears aren’t everything. And sometimes they are not enough. This is doubly true if an audience is presented with the sort of modern music which trades in humor, sly remarks, and attitude, like the Lutosławski Cello Concerto, which received its San Francisco premiere this week nearly fifty years after it was composed. I’m happy to report the concerto was a triumph worth the wait, but its success with our audience was to a large degree determined by the mini-skit taking place onstage. Fortunately, Christian Reif and Johannes Moser are natural comedians, sufficiently so to dispel any notions that Germans are too uptight to be funny! And our close sight lines in Davies Hall, where it is easy to witness a performer’s face, surely played a part in what almost amounted to a Saturday Night Live routine.
Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) was fortunate to be a radical with a sense of fun. It’s rare and, when coming from a composer living under an oppressive regime, inherently dangerous. If Charles Wuorinen or Pierre Boulez ever wrote musical jokes, like Mozart or Haydn, the world is probably not aware of it. And neither would have been risking much. Lutosławski, on the other hand, seems to have purged himself early of musical anger which might have alienated audience or party. His Concerto for Orchestra, finished in 1954, is a successful concert piece. The Cello Concerto, written sixteen years later for Mstislav Rostropovich, at a time of considerable tension in the Communist world, manages to be an audience triumph, despite, one might argue, its aggression, modernism and likely political inspiration.
The concerto succeeds because it brings frustration down to a human comedic level. It’s about the psychological torture of being disturbed by random events which seem to have it in for you. At some level, it’s Buster Keaton. The music’s main motif is a simple, unvaried, grandfather clock swipe at the cello which repeats the same note over and over. Tick, tick tick….It sets the scene like a Hollywood heartbeat. The cellist is pensive. Then mood shattering interruptions begin.
Imagine someone trying to daydream in an armchair. He’s suddenly disturbed by drills in the street. They stop. They start up again, just as his reverie settles in again. This time he slams the window. He sits down. A garbage truck drops something on the pavement directly below. He gets up, opens the window and screams at the street. They can’t hear him. Soon it becomes a battle between the disturbed man and the elements. You get the drift. It goes on for a while. The orchestra attacks the cellist from every possible corner at the rudest of times. He scrapes hideously in response. Soloist and conductor stare each other down, shadowboxing the notes they play, half lunging at each other. The audience shrieks with laughter through the silences, just in time for the next random indignity to hit. It works quite wonderfully, and laughter is especially good for the soul when it carries no irony—or at least no irony we don’t all experience ten times a day.
Although brief lyrical moments are to be found in the concerto, there is nothing you would really call a tune. If I had only heard the work on CD, I might think the musical values of the work pretty thin. But cooked-up as a battle between personalities onstage, and with a terrific ham at the cello with fingers to burn, the recipe becomes hilariously potent. Johannes Moser was a terrific choice, flawlessly accurate and impudent to a fault.
This was only the second time I’ve heard Christian Reif, the San Francisco Symphony’s Resident Conductor, but he looks to be on his way to a deservedly successful career. Reif defies the usual vertical challenges of his profession and stands tall above the orchestra, like someone born on a wind-farm, with long arms frequently stretched-out sideways, wings holding up the sound for drama, and long fingers capable of a life of their own, resembling the tentacles of a squid who knows what it’s doing. That’s meant to be more flattering than it sounds!
Christian Reif and the orchestra began the evening with a mainstream, but romantic performance of Strauss’ Don Juan, featuring nice contrasts and horns that had enough time to soar. I was even more deeply impressed with the weighty but forward moving power Reif elicited for the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony. Prokofiev’s first movement concludes in a celebratory fashion with victory cannonades felt like earthquakes. I’ve never heard percussion and brass give quite so much in this piece before. The last chord of that movement surely carried everyone nearly to the sonic breaking point. Straightforward drama was the order of the remaining movements, as well. I enjoy a conductor who can hold a climax until it is the climax you really want, but remain flexible enough not to be too slow. Christian Reif seems to manage that beautifully.
It was nice, too, in this post-Christmas season, to be sent out into the dark charged-up and happy. Now if only more modern composers knew how to laugh….