Warhorses at a Trot

Lisa Hirsch on February 5, 2008
Once upon a time, a symphony-goer would regularly find concerts on an orchestra's schedule consisting of an overture, a concerto, and a popular warhorse or two, light programs notable more for their entertainment value than substance. Entertainment is a fine thing, and so are such programs, when they're brought off with sufficient dash and panache. Vladimir Ashkenazy's program for last week's San Francisco Symphony concerts, heard on Friday, looked like a throwback to that era, since the pianist-turned-conductor included Max Bruch's violin showpiece Fantasy on Scottish Themes, Ottorino Respighi's tone poem Fountains of Rome, and Albert Roussel's ballet music Bacchus and Ariadne Suite No. 2. Adding some weight to the program was an intriguing new piece, Einojuhani Rautavaara's Manhattan Trilogy, receiving its first performances on the West Coast. The program also had a theme of sorts, in that three of the works were titled for specific places, only one of them set in the composers' country of origin. I wish I could report being thrilled by the results, but the concert was among the most dully conducted I've ever attended. Ashkenazy directs the orchestra with a somewhat limited vocabulary of gestures, all of them a bit stiff-looking, and the four quite different pieces came across with a similar lack of energy. The faster movements had little momentum and almost no drive. Every tempo, whether in a slow movement or a fast one, somehow sounded like a variant of moderato, even though testing with a metronome would likely have indicated real speed differences. This sameness flattened the rhythmic and metrical profiles of all four pieces, though a few movements stood out for having more energy than the others, including the dance movements and closing "Bacchanale" in the Roussel and sections of the Respighi, the "Nightmares" movement of the Rautavaara, and the last movement of the Bruch. Still, there wasn't nearly enough tempo contrast between the Grave and Adagio cantabile sections of the latter's Prelude.

Sweet, Propulsive Violin Playing

Nonetheless, the work is a charmer and was a pleasure to hear, largely because of the beautiful playing of soloist James Ehnes. He has a lovely, clear tone that remains sweet at all volumes. He played every note with perfect tuning, even in complicated passages of double stops. And he performed with such propulsion and verve that I wished anyone but Ashkenazy was on the podium. Ehnes and harpist Douglas Rioth, who was stationed near the podium for the Bruch, sounded especially fine in their interplay. My first encounter with Rautavaara's music was at the November 2006 Volti concert, where that superb new-music chorus sang his Suite de Lorca. Writing in SFCV, Michelle Dulak Thomson clearly enjoyed the piece, as did I, but she also found it facile and a bit lightweight. I would say the same about Manhattan Trilogy. Rautavaara lived in New York City in the 1950s, when he studied at Juilliard, and his recollections of that time inspired the piece. His Manhattan is a quieter, more reflective place than the bustling city evoked by Gershwin, or by Bernstein in his West Side Story score. But the first movement, "Daydreams" — in which the strings shimmer, a broad horn theme leads the way, the winds play melancholy solos, and the harps tick like metronomes — sounds like a gloss on Swan of Tuonela, a better piece. "Nightmares" is more original, launched by a slithering chromatic theme in the strings and chiming tubular bells (yes, this could be someone tossing and turning, harassed by bad dreams). "Dawn" comes up slowly, stretching itself from the bottom of the orchestra to the very top, where the piccolo plays a charming, birdlike solo.

Splashy Tone Poem

Respighi's Fountains of Rome probably gets played less often than the louder, more popular Pines of Rome. Fountains is certainly a pretty and beautifully orchestrated piece, sometimes sounding more French than Italian, but it also trades in any number of watery cliches: undulating string figures, celesta writing that lands the listener in the last act of Der Rosenkavalier, and some thoroughly Wagnerian horn passages. Were we at the bottom of the Rhine, or in a sunny Roman plaza? Roussel's Suite No. 2 from Bacchus and Ariadne has something of the character of a tone poem, because the music tracks closely and obviously with the plot of the ballet for which it was written. The dance movements and finale were the standouts, played with somewhat more energy than the other movements. I wish "The Kiss" had been played more luxuriously. However lacking in impulse and drive Ashkenazy's conducting was, he did a good job of bringing out the many colors of each piece. And, as usual, the orchestra played well and with excellent ensemble. Ashkenazy got a big hand at the close of the concert, from the orchestra as well as the audience. Still, I'd like to hear all these works under another, more vigorous conductor, one who can do a better job of differentiating four quite different pieces. The Rautavaara, a new work, would particularly benefit from a more persuasive reading.