Sunday, April 22, 2012


Stephane Deneve guest-conducted the San Francisco Symphony this week. I caught the last performance of his mostly-French program and thought he hit a grand slam, performance-wise, whatever you might happen to think of the works he conducted. He got an exceptionally transparent and layered sound from the orchestra, even in the loudest work on the program, Stravinsky's 1919 Suite from The Firebird, and he communicated a great sense of the ebb and flow of the music. Rubato, yes! He's a regular at the BSO, which has past strong connections to French music. They should be considering him as a possible music director (and maybe we should, too, in the years to come).

The program led off with a brisk and colorful performance of Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, which was also played earlier this season by the visiting Boston Symphony under Ludovic Morlot. After this came one of the "big" works on the program, Saint-Saens's Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian. It has a fairly tenuous connection with Egypt and Egyptian music and only occasionally even attempts to evoke Middle Eastern music.  It's not the best of the S-S's piano concertos, though I believe it was a late-night hearing of the piece on radio some years ago that sent me off to buy a set of the composer's piano concertos. That said, sometimes a girl just wants to have fun, and this concerto is plenty of fun. Yes, certain persons we know just can't stand the composer or this piece; I think I just like camp more than certain persons do. I also have absolutely no idea what led Jeff Dunn to write that the concerto is short on melodies. My girlfriend found the S-S fun too, and told me that she thought the Berlioz was a little cheesy! Sorry, Joshua!

Soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet played the heck out of it, with plenty of panache and quite a broad range of tone colors. Balances between the orchestra and soloist were superb; I'm not sure whether to blame credit composer, conductor, my seat in row N, or all three, but whatever. The orchestra never drowned out the soloist and every note was always audible; considering the problems I've heard in the past (for example, in a pretty poor Bartok performance by Yuja Wang last year, with MTT conducting), this was especially impressive. Thibaudet played a short encore, a piece by Ravel from 1911, and that was ravishing. I somehow had gotten the impression that Thibaudet was something of a lightweight, but he was so good in this program that I'd love to hear him in other repertory, especially Debussy and Ravel.

Next up was a genuine rarity, Albert Roussel's Symphonic Fragments from The Spider's Feast. I rather think almost everything by Roussel is a rarity in the US, but after hearing this piece, I'm going to run off and pick up a few CDs from Deneve's ongoing Roussel cycle on Naxos. It is absolutely gorgeous, a lush thing of gossamer and moonlight - and I practically jumped out of my seat when, out of the gossamer came a motif from Psycho. I guess Roussel got there first! The orchestra sounded especially great in this work.

Not that there was anything wrong in how they sounded in the Firebird suite, which I expect they can play more or less in their sleep. But it was a terrific performance, lush and forceful at the same time; graceful and tender in the Lullaby, majestic at the close. A big hand for Robert Ward's handling of the big theme in the last movement.

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