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French Frolic

July 29, 2008

Last Thursday’s San Francisco Symphony’s Summer in the City concert in Davies Symphony Hall turned into a light, but charming array of basic French fare, as conductor James Gaffigan went from opera excerpts to Ravel’s bitter take on the Viennese Waltz. The largest piece, however, turned out to feature pianist Inon Barnatan playing Saint-Saëns’ most popular Concerto, his second.
Gaffigan opened with excerpts from Bizet’s own Carmen Suite No.1 and the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. Following intermission, there was Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld and his Intermezzo and Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann. Then the program rounded off with Ravel’s La Valse. There were no encores although the audience called for some.

It tickled me that all four of the French composers had historic connections to the most performed American-born operatic composer — although I doubt that this was exactly planned in advance. (More on that later.)

Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto was tossed off in only three weeks in 1868, at the behest Anton Rubinstein, who conducted the premiere with the composer at the piano. It begins with a dramatic slow movement, which opens with nearly a Baroque fantasia. Then comes the main body of the movement, one often colored by Spanish modality. There follows a breezy scherzo in Mendelssohn fashion, which also includes hints of Offenbach here and there. For his finale, Saint-Saëns turned out a tarantella in the manner of his friend and promoter, Rossini. So the Concerto is at once amazingly original in form as well as a kind of international tour.
Pianistic Flash
Barnantan obviously possesses tons of technique and was not above showing it off, — hands flying in the air and that sort of thing. His sensitive phrasing of the lyrical passages was always expressive, if not always in perfect alignment with Gaffigan. The audience cheered the performance to the rafters, complete with standing ovation.

Ravel was an ambulance driver in World War I, and the constant sight of the wounded and dead from battlefields scarred him for life. Hence, by the time the orchestra reaches the finale of La Valse, the sunburst of glamor depicting mid-19th century, high society Vienna, breaks into a sonic chaos of dissonant violence, converted into a frenzied protest against Austrian militarism.

Gaffigan took a fairly straightforward approach to La Valse, emphasizing the sheer massiveness of sound during tutti passages, and the utter stillness of Ravel’s impressionist fog. A performance of extremes, yes, but that’s what the piece is all about. And when the music shifted from glittering waltz into a dance of death, the effect was emotionally shattering.

The Offenbach selections featured his most famous music: the can-can in his Orpheus, and the Barcarolle in his final opera — each the aural definition of those forms for most listeners. Fortunately, no one near me sang or hummed along, although the performances were excellent enough to incite that. Both pieces were done with real panache.
Carmen Without Spice
Bizet died without garnering a Suite No. 2 from Carmen, although clearly that had been his intention. Otherwise, why the “No. 1" in the title? But the existing suite has everything you need to hear from the opera. Its eleven movements are a bit much to fit into most programming. Gaffigan chose only six: the Prelude, Aragonaise, Intermezzo, Sequedilla, Dragons of Alcala and, of course, the Toreador’s song.

The performances were all right, but no more. With a reduced string section for the evening, brass and percussion tended to dominate. In Bizet, it’s a good idea to underplay the written dynamics because the brass are usually in their most brilliant registers, and the percussion a tad thick in places. But the larger flaw was the lack of Spanish flavor. Gaffigan chose to play the score purely as French music. That’s a little like eating paella minus the saffron. Minor elements can occasionally be important beyond surface appearances.

Aller! — the most performed American operatic composer? New Orleans born Ernest Guiraud (1837-92). Guiraud was a prodigy who, at age 15, composed an opera, which was produced in New Orleans. Shortly after that, he was off to Paris, where he remained.

Considered a master of orchestration, he was made a professor of the Paris Conservatory in 1876, where his students included Debussy, Dukas and Loeffler among others. His treatise on orchestration was published in 1892, the year of his death. It became a a standard text for all Paris Conservatory composition majors, Debussy and Ravel among them

But who’s ever heard a performance of Guiraud’s music? Well, he wrote recitatives for Carmen, following Bizet’s death. And his superb orchestrations grace Tales of Hoffmann. (Offenbach left only a rough piano score at his death. Saint-Saëns then performed a similar favor for his colleague, completing Guiraud’s last opera, Frédégonde three years after Guiraud’s death. Thus, he is remembered as the answer to a trivia question.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.
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