Davies Hall, San Francisco
The San Francisco Symphony
April 27, 2019
James Gaffigan, conductor
Hélène Grimaud, piano
Wagner – Good Friday Spell from Parsifal (1882)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Opus 58 (1806)
Mozart – Symphony No. 31 in D major, K.297 (300a), Paris (1778)
Barber – Symphony No. 1, Opus 9 (1936)
What a wonderful work is Barber’s First Symphony! I will argue in a moment that it is America’s greatest. If I review our program a bit backwards this time, it’s because we don’t hear this piece often enough—or nearly at all in San Francisco. (The last outing here was in 1963 under Howard Mitchell). But it was worth the wait, not the least because of James Gaffigan’s white-hot performance. Indeed, Barber’s concluding timpanic growl brought the audience to its feet screaming, a fitting wind-up for a concert of bravos, and reaffirmed our sense that James Gaffigan has become a major conductor.
Barber’s symphony plays out in 21 event-packed, harmonically fascinating minutes, composed in one movement tailored to encompass the usual symphonic ingredients of allegro, scherzo, slow movement and finale. In this respect it resembles Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony, with which it is often compared (and sometimes disparaged via a sort of “gotcha”), but the resemblance is only superficial. Sibelius winds his harmonies out to nether regions and remains detached, as if witnessing humanity from the moon. Barber brings us into the powerhouse streets of New York and shows us moonlight over the Hudson.
Barber is a romantic composer who solved the 20th century problem of predictability by telescoping melody and melodic phrase. Listening to this piece is like trying to play tennis with someone who has figured out how to return the ball much faster than you expect. No sooner do you settle in with one of Barber’s juicy cadences than you are slammed with another rhythmic line. The piece never stops moving and diving into new territory. In the scherzo, even when the music comes to a halt, Barber’s woodwinds keep noodling and rocking, like someone jogging in place at a street corner waiting for the light to change. It’s a very American, impatient sort of energy.
One of the curses of symphonic music has always been that great works seem almost to require a necessary complement of boredom. I’ve listened to music in concert halls for more than 55 years, and people always cough in the same places. There is a lot of stasis in Mahler, Bruckner, even Beethoven and Mozart. Human attention has its limits. My observation of the Barber First Symphony is that, not only did nobody cough during the performance. But there is simply no moment in the symphony where one would! In that particular sense, the Barber First Symphony is a perfect work of art. I can think of no American symphony that touches it, certainly not the Copland Third.
James Gaffigan, of course, had a lot to do with creating these impressions. Gaffigan is a high energy conductor with a fine sense of drama and a good sense of flow, which can be rarer than you might think. He is one of the few these days who still dresses in classic white tie and tails. (No doubt his Swiss orchestra in Lucerne appreciates the formality.) Something about Gaffigan’s demeanor reminds one of dignified 19th century portraits of “important” men. Degas could have painted him.
After a fine and atmospheric Good Friday Spell, Gaffigan was joined by Hélène Grimaud for the Beethoven Fourth Concerto. Contrast between the two was amusing: the very “Belle Epoque” conductor, and the beautiful French pianist with flowing hair, rippling blouse and near pajamas for trousers, like a commercial for Sheex Sheets. In the event, all that fluidity could be misleading. They were both pit-bulls with the concerto. I was raised on an early Serkin/Ormandy LP performance of the Beethoven, sheer velvet from beginning to end. Grimaud and Gaffigan gave us the opposite, but at least without HIP affectations in the orchestra, though Grimaud has a slightly glassy tone in music like this. It was exciting, in any case.
The penultimate work on this program was Mozart’s Symphony No. 31, known as the Paris. It was composed in full knowledge of French expectations for drama and excitement. At the premiere, debate remains whether Mozart had 95 players onstage or 55, but it was a lot, and the first chords were designed to hit one hard and wow the listener. Gaffigan is the first conductor I have heard who did just that, ably abetted by our aggressive timpanist and a large complement onstage. The whole performance was a wow, in fact, reminding one that Mozart was thought incandescent in his day.
The San Francisco Symphony is lucky in a number of ways, a powerful Davies Hall stage acoustic for brass and timpani one of its glories. Our percussionists and trombonists are heroes, and never more so than in a concert like this. I hope James Gaffigan’s performance of the Barber First Symphony has been captured for the microphones. I have listened over the years to every available version of this piece, including those on YouTube. There would be none better. Bravo!