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Savoring Saint-Saëns

October 16, 2007

One great performance, one disappointment, and one bore were offered on last week’s San Francisco Symphony program. At least, that’s how it came across on Thursday’s matinee opening in Davies Symphony Hall. Still in all, that made for a .500 batting average for the afternoon.
Guest conductor Roberto Abbado, nephew of Claudio Abbado, proved his usual able self in a program consisting of Luca Francesconi’s Cobalt, Scarlet: Two Colors of Dawn (2000), Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto in F Minor, Op. 21, and Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op.78 ("Organ"). The young Argentinean pianist Ingrid Fliter was making her S.F. Symphony debut in the Chopin concerto, while organist Jonathan Dimmock lent his obbligato support to Saint-Saëns’ symphony.

The word from critics is that Fliter could well be the world’s next superstar pianist. And indeed, she came into Davies with a caboodle of prizes under her belt, from Argentina, Italy, and Poland. Young, blond, and slender, she cuts a fine figure at the piano, which helps in these days of youth worship. She has loads of technique, but she was obviously nervous on Thursday, fidgeting with the piano stool and dusting off the keyboard several times before beginning.

That nervousness also manifested itself in some rhythmically unstable playing, especially during fast passagework. She tended, for example, to squeeze fast triplets or dart ahead by a hair when playing them.

Fliter’s timbres were bright, cleanly articulate, and a tad loud, given the reduced orchestra. Her finest playing appeared in the famous slow movement, one of Chopin’s most melting romances, although she tended to use old-style, swooning rubato of the "Never let a cadence pass unmarked" school, a la Lang Lang. Fliter’s performance was not at all bad, only less impressive than I had anticipated.
Elegance and Heft
The glory of the afternoon turned out to be Abbado’s fine interpretation of the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony. I once heard conductor Jean Martinon call it "the goosebump symphony," and the thrills were certainly all in place at this performance. Abbado had the orchestra playing at its most subtle and elegant self, and his tempo selections were right on the button.

There are places in the piece where Saint-Saëns' scoring can cause sonic problems, particularly amid the lower brass instruments. For this symphony to work, the trombones and tuba must banish all thoughts of marching-band timbre and transform themselves into a solid, velvety, lustrous richness, like another organ. There’s no more beautiful sound within an orchestra if that comes to pass, as it did on Thursday. Here was bravura playing that proved very moving. New principal trombonist Paul Welcomer, in particular, deserves praise for his revelatory slow movement solo, which simply couldn’t be better or more lovingly played.

Organist Dimmock achieved beautiful balance in the middle movements. The one flaw came with the salvo he fired off in his first major entrance to open the finale. It wasn't as loud as the Blue Angels, but it leaned in that direction. Sure the score calls for full organ, but it doesn’t call for throwing in the kitchen sink, the bath tub, and the rolled-up carpet with it. Except for that bit, Dimmock was appropriately grand throughout the piece.

It was good to hear that big organ, draped across the rear of the hall like a giant lavaliere, sounded again. It is played so seldom and I can only wonder why. True, it is used sparingly in most orchestral repertory, but the organ literature is rich with masterpieces, which we virtually never hear. I can’t understand why the Symphony doesn’t present an occasional virtuoso organist on its Great Performers series.
Bland Color
The 25 minutes of Cobalt, Scarlet: Two Colors of Dawn, Francesconi’s tone poem on the transformation of dark night into daylight, was the first, and likely last, performance of the work locally. It calls for an immense orchestra, including 49 percussion instruments in the hands of seven percussionists. These were divided into five groups across the back of the stage, as were the double basses to the right and left of the orchestra. The composer drew an assortment of extraordinary colors from the expanded sections. He does orchestrate well.

Francesconi (b. 1956) studied with Azio Corghi in his native Milan, Karlheinz Stockhausen in Rome, and Luciano Berio at the Tanglewood Festival. He has also worked at IRCAM, the acoustical and electronic music center in Paris. But sonic glitter aside, his music was little more than a string of clichés from the 1960s. Individual, quiet tinkles and a few scales formed the materials for the night section, while obstinate ostinatos of no notable interest dominated the toccatalike second section. Most of the time, the piece sounded like run-of-the-mill background music for a suspense or action movie. What a waste of time, considering all the fine Italian 20th-century music out there.

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.