Davies Hall, San Francisco
February 15, 2020
The San Francisco Symphony
Fabien Gabel, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano,
Jonathan Dimmock, organ
Dukas – La Peri (1912)
Aaron Zigman – Tango Manos Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2019)
Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Opus 78, “Organ” (1886)
Last weekend the San Francisco Symphony, surely unbeknownst, gave me a Valentine’s Day card masquerading as a pair of tickets! I don’t honestly recall a concert in recent years I’ve enjoyed more than this one. I’ve known and loved Paul Dukas’ ballet score La Peri for more than fifty years without ever hearing it live, and as a dedicated Francophile in music, I am always delighted to hear again Camille Saint-Saëns’ iconic and fascinatingly structured Organ Symphony. Add to this the fact that I grew up in the wilds of Latin America and learned to tango just about when couples abandoned cutting a rug with each other on the dance floor in favor of wriggling in place, and you can imagine how a piano concerto based on Tango would evoke a special warmth and affection in someone like me. So I am writing more as a fan than as a critic this time.
We haven’t had much French influence at the Symphony in recent decades; the legacy of Pierre Monteux is mostly gone. Chausson and Franck and d’Indy and Florent Schmitt have been bypassed in favor of Stravinsky and a few bits of Ravel and late Debussy. Under the circumstances I was pleased to see Fabien Gabel’s debut here prove such a triumph with our audience in two unabashedly romantic French pieces. (Predictably, the San Francisco Chronicle condescended to the concert as an evening of “glitz,” making one aware yet again how insufferable avant-garde musical virtue signalling can be. The audience loved the music unreservedly—so there must surely be something uncool and vulgar about it!) Fortunately, there are few statues to music critics!
Gabel stepped to the podium like an elegant figure of the Belle Epoque, dignified in traditional concert dress, sporting a short beard, someone out of Degas I immediately thought—-but resembling Albert Roussel in early middle age (less hair!) Gabel, currently Music Director in Quebec, proved to be a galvanic conductor with a fine sense of musical choreography and a sweeping notion of excitement. He led La Peri from memory.
The title translates as “The Fairy.” (It was mischief, reading program notes trying to describe the music without ever using that politically incorrect word!) Dukas’ ballet score, beginning with an unforgettable fanfare, amounts to a marvelous twenty minutes of sinuous orchestration and delicately pulsating forward motion, seasoned with mysterious glissandi on harp and celesta to one’s heart’s content. Along the way are two major eruptive climaxes, and here I was reminded that our orchestra’s percussion and brass section, when asked to do so, can deliver remarkably powerful tight chords. Davies Hall in a genuine fortissimo is an exciting place to be, and one sensed the players letting go. The sheer whiplash Gabel asked for and received certainly surpassed any excitement available on recordings of La Peri. I believe I know all of them. Charles Munch used to assert that a conductor must possess the “gift of fire.” Gabel lit up the house.
Even so, traditional pulse-racing was nothing compared to the sheer snap and crackle we soon experienced with Aaron Zigman’s piano concerto on Tango Themes,Tango Manos. The idea for the piece bespeaks our globalized world. No one involved seems to have been from Argentina! The project was first suggested to Zigman, who is known mostly for film scores such as The Notebook and based in Los Angeles, by Long Yu, Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the China Philharmonic—a tango enthusiast from an unexpected quarter. The commission included the China Philharmonic, Radio France and the San Francisco Symphony. Indeed, the emotions of Tango are surely universal, independent of national origin. Tango dancing is really a form of love-making and graceful reminiscence, hot and dramatic in its moves, but homesick and lovely in quieter moments, speaking of loss with philosophic dignity. It began as the music of nostalgic immigrants.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet emerged onstage for the concerto dressed in black, but with enough spangles on his collar to portend fun and convince you Liberace was lurking under the surface there somewhere. As it happened, good thing there was no candelabra on the piano. It would have been sent flying by fiendish octaves a few moments after the concerto began. Zigman’s music starts with calm, almost Brahmsian melodic chords, then takes off with violent syncopations, bounces and leaps. Before long the orchestra is hammering at you full tilt, and anyone who can play his instrument and sway from side to side at the same time is helpless to keep from doing so. The concerto is organized in a cyclical manner, so everything you hear makes for a satisfying totality, but it has three separate movements, the central one so beautiful, lush and emotional, a man shouted “yes!” as it died away. The finale, in true last movement spirit, seems to chase you down, pounding you with mallets and whipping at you with snare drum sticks. Then the gentleness comes back for a moment and takes you deep into memory before the music ends dramatically.
As I hinted above, I am not always a lover of contemporary pieces. I notice that much great music from the past is ignored and much forgettable music of the present serves to put an audience’s teeth on edge and then be forgotten. But I hope Tango Manos becomes as popular as Boléro. It is one of the few modern works which deserves to be heard by everyone, because it will be liked by everyone.
It was almost anticlimactic following the Zigman concerto to fall back within the bounds of traditional French symphonic argument in Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. But the symphony is so cleverly based on the Dies Irae plainsong and at the same time so beautifully orchestrated and laid out in its cyclical logic, that it only took the powerful romantic approach Gabel brought to it to make for a perfect end piece at this concert. The work is a tease when it comes to the organ, sometimes sounding as though the pipes are playing when they are not, and at other times hiding a pedal note among the basses. Jonathan Dimmock voiced his instrument just right. Once again the SFS brass and percussion gave its all. There was a wonderful timpani snap at the end of the first movement development section (where many performances miss the drama), and just the right hell-bent-for-leather coda at the very end of the symphony. Overall, the reading had the sort of fire Charles Munch used to elicit in the symphony.
By my lights, this was a nearly perfect concert. It seemed like a valentine to a loyal public. I hope the orchestra administration learns something from it. But looking at the thorny appearance of next season’s programs, I have my doubts…