Passion & technique
by Philip Campbell
No stranger to Bay Area audiences or to the San Francisco Symphony, current Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Charles Dutoit recently wrapped a two-week guest stint at Davies Symphony Hall. After almost three decades of appearances with the orchestra, Dutoit has never disappointed with his repertoire choices, his clear interpretations or his expert baton technique. He may not be a particularly showy or striking personality on the podium, but his deep experience and a life spent in association with some major musical institutions – the Philadelphia Orchestra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo, the Montreal Symphony (25 years!) and the Orchestre National de France – have made him a respected master and an ever-welcome visitor here.
It was easy to forgive the one dicey bit of programming performed during the first week of his stay. It was probably more a concession to his guest soloist than anything else. Edouard Lalo's ambitious but highly forgettable Symphonie espagnole for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 21, became the mediocre centerpiece of a program that was constructed as something like a postcard tour of Europe that ended with Edward Elgar's nobly British Enigma Variations. Canadian violinist James Ehnes returned to DSH after two years of absence to essay the virtuosic demands of the attractive but obstinately pedestrian Lalo score.
The evening opened with a vibrant and evocative Rapsodie espagnole by Ravel that suggested a thematic link for the concert. Unfortunately, Lalo's pretty and only occasionally arresting music couldn't maintain the leitmotif. It wasn't without a valiant attempt by young Ehnes. He has the ability to make all the points, ingratiate himself to an audience, and show passion as well as technique. Why he was trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear may show an attempt at making surprising repertoire choices. Still, if you are opting out of the usual concerto fare, there are a lot better offbeat picks out there. His encore, the Largo from Bach's Sonata No. 3, said more in five minutes than in 30 of Lalo.
Last week was the crowning achievement of Dutoit's stay and a real evening-long chance for the superb San Francisco Symphony Chorus under director Ragnar Bohlin to both impress and elevate. The selection of Francis Poulenc's lovely Stabat Mater (1951) would have been enough to cheer my senses, but the second half of the bill was given to a towering performance of the Te Deum by Berlioz that took anyone's expectations for a choral performance way over the top.
To say the Poulenc was cheering might seem odd in the context of an extended piece regarding a mother's grief, but as Rossini managed in his treatment of the same subject, Poulenc invests so many moments with such tender sweetness (and frankly catchy tunes), one can't help feeling a little better for the whole experience. Soprano Erin Wall was just right in her solo role, and the SFS Chorus sounded beautifully rehearsed and quite in tune with the subtle and strikingly modern harmonies.
After intermission, Dutoit, the SFS Chorus joined by the Pacific Boychoir (Kevin Fox, director) and tenor Paul Groves returned to the stage for a remarkably tight rendition of Berlioz's glorious choral work with organ and orchestra. There was no weak link in the huge performing forces, but there were some suitable standouts. Organist Jonathan Dimmock should have been listed alongside solo vocalist Paul Groves in the program notes. Each of them made excellent contributions. The ardent and beautiful singing by the Boychoir was also wonderful to see and hear. Their fresh and earnest faces coupled with genuinely surprising strength made all the more impact as the members of the SFS Chorus powered their own way through the huge and complex writing.
To the maestro's credit, the orchestra remained perfectly audible and in balance. To hear such a rich edge and sweetness in the strings with all that commotion around them was truly amazing.
This week at Davies, another welcome return guest conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, takes the podium to conduct Prokofiev's thrilling Fifth Symphony and pianist Stephen Hough as he tackles Liszt's Concerto No. 2.