Friday, May 27, 2022

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Nathalie Stutzmann, who's French, is 57, so though she didn't get an early start as a conductor, she's been around for a while, not a 26-year-old prodigy. And she was recently appointed music director in Atlanta, only the second woman ever to have such a major post at a US orchestra. So why hasn't there been more hoopla over this, and why had she never been on the SFS podium until this week?

She ought to be there, because on it she did an audacious, ground-breaking, well-nigh unbelievable job on Tchaikovsky's Pathetique. I was there to hear it last night and I'm not sure I believe what I heard.

The Pathetique consists of two tragically melancholic outer movements surrounding two joyous and chipper inner movements, and the relationship between these two extremes is the challenge of the Pathetique. Some conductors play the inner movements in vigorous defiance of the outer melancholia. Some play them in oblivious denial of their surroundings.

Stutzmann did neither. Her inner movements were as darkly foreboding and ominous as the rest. If you know this symphony, you may think, "That's not possible." But it is possible, and she made the orchestra do it. The storm clouds continuously lurked over this waltz and scherzo, and sometimes even burst open.

The outer movements were, naturellement, even more so. They surged, they growled, they thundered, they rasped. Stutzmann was controlled enough not to telegraph the sudden pow! at the start of the first movement development, and the orchestral playing wasn't wild, but it was fierce. The timpani and percussion were conspicuous, but even the strings had the same spirit. Even the passage of up-and-down scales in the third movement cut like a buzzsaw.

The other half of the program, three short choral-orchestral pieces by Brahms (Nänie, Gesang der Parzen, Schicksalslied), was less successful. If Stutzmann caught the melancholy of Tchaikovsky, she found the more open melancholy of Brahms more elusive. I've heard these pieces before and they don't have to be this dull and characterless. The sound of the chorus - this week guest-directed by the director of the SF Girls Chorus; they've been subsisting on guests since the regular director was dismissed for being anti-vaxx, which is an insane thing for a choral director to be (well, anybody actually, but especially a choral director) - anyway, as I was saying, the sound of the chorus was fine, but I couldn't make out anything they were saying even with the text in front of me, except for the hiss of an occasional "s" passing through the ensemble.

James M. Keller's pre-concert talk was more than usually amusing, consisting largely of an account of the few personal meetings between Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky didn't like Brahms's music - he once called him a "giftless bastard" - so things became awkward when Tchaikovsky, in Germany on a conducting tour, went to visit the home of the violinist who'd premiered his Violin Concerto only to find a chamber music rehearsal going on, a Brahms piece with Brahms at the piano. Tchaikovsky was not the kind for insincere compliments, so the atmosphere got a little dicey when the piece was over, until - the door burst open and, ta da, Edvard and Nina Grieg walked in. As the tenor of Edvard's music might suggest, the Griegs spread joy and cheerfulness wherever they went. Everybody was happy, and Brahms and Tchaikovsky went out, got drunk over a few bottles of wine, and parted friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment