Apparently all the cool kids were elsewhere last night when I went see Alan Gilbert conduct SFS, because there was not a familiar face anywhere near me. Full-time reviewers will have attended the Thursday matinee, freeing up that evening for Keenlyside or Berkeley Symphony and last night for Luisotti or PBO.
This was the fourth time I've seen Gilbert with SFS, and the fourth time he has failed to make my head explode. The program was exactly the kind of thing Gilbert has typically conducted in San Francisco; an interesting new work bracketed by Classical-period standards. Here's a rundown of his past appearances:
- April, 2008. Mozart piano concert (Goode, who was boring); Stucky (okay, not great piece); Nielsen symphony that got a great performance
- March, 2007. Ades, Chamber Symphony; Beethoven, Triple Concerto; Mozart, Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter." Ades great, others, eh.
- Fall, 2004. Adams, Naive & Sentimental Music (great, though The Standing Room didn't care for the performance); Beethoven, Violin Concerto (Midori), eh.
Last night was Beethoven's 8th and Haydn's 99th on either side of the Dutilleux. The program worked out almost exactly the way I feared it would: the Beethoven, played with a big string section, about the same as for the Dutilleux, took no chances at all. Tempos were moderate, articulation was overly legato, the Davies acoustics buried the cello line in a critical repeat, etc. Solidly, actually, stolidly conducted and not something I would write home about.
The Haydn was a different story; played with a smaller band, considerable charm, and sharper articulation, it came off as a much more interesting piece than the Beethoven. Maybe it is, or maybe Gilbert is simply a better Haydn than Beethoven conductor.
In between, filling out the first half of the program, came the Dutilleux, a beautiful and intricate violin concerto here played with warmth, commitment, and a soaring line by Renaud Capucon, making his main-stage debut with SFS. I don't have notes to speak of; I liked the work and was interested to see that SFS had played it before, in 1988 with Isaac Stern, the commissioner and dedicatee, as the soloist. A generation ago, in orchestra personnel terms, though a fair number of players must have been in those concerts. Capucon is a terrific player and he has recorded the piece; I should have bought the set last night and gotten it signed.
But then there's the Gilbert problem. He did a fine job with Doctor Atomic at the Met, far as I could tell from the broadcast. He has blown my head off once, in a magnificent one-off with the NYPO, his own band, last year at Carnegie Hall, and his work in 20th and 21st c. music at SFS has been very good indeed.. I understand that when you're a visiting conductor and there's a big and complex work on the program, the concert needs to have something on it that the orchestra can toss off with minimal rehearsal. The Eighth was presumably that piece. But I have yet to be impressed with Gilbert in any classical period music. It is all competently but uninterestingly played. It's a big deficit for the conductor of a major symphony orchestra, which is the NYPO's problem, not ours. But why not program music that's more his strong suit when he visits here? Less Classical Era Big Three, more Scandinavians and Finns!