French Music at the San Francisco Symphony

Dave and I went to Davies Thursday night to hear Michael Tilsen Thomas conduct four French works: Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and Les Nuits d’été, the latter sung by Susan Graham, Debussy’s Nocturnes, and Dukas’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice.

The concert got off to a poor start with a slapdash performance of the Roman Carnival Overture. Entrances were ragged, rhythms were off, accents were not quite where they should have been. I leaned over to Dave during the applause and murmured, Well, I guess we know where the rehearsal time didn’t go to. Dave noted that MTT wasn’t conducting from a score, which may have had something to do with it, too. The Roman Carnival Overture is one of my favorite pieces of light music but I could have skipped this performance.

Les Nuits d’été, on the other hand, was beautiful, lush and sumptuous both in playing and in Susan Graham’s singing. MTT asked beforehand that we respect the silences between the songs, and the audience complied, but personally I think it’s just plain unnatural not to applaud songs that were so clearly written as separate units and are so beautifully performed.

Being more of a word person by nature than a music person, and not being very familiar with the songs (I’ve heard them a couple times before, but not often and not recently), I followed along with the French text as well as I could, with the help of the sometimes inaccurate English translation. I think for the most part Berlioz gave the poet much better than he deserved — the poems are a bit overheated and flowery for my taste. Birds don’t just sing, they either recite poetry or they weep for their departed mates; dew doesn’t take the form of drops of water, it comes in pearls or in silver tears. But the music is delightful and the performance was delicious.

Nocturnes was terrific, too, very suave and subtle. And then the big surprise was how good The Sorceror’s Apprentice was. I’d figured by that time it was going to be like the Roman Carnival Overture, an old warhorse that they’d filled out the program with because it wouldn’t require much rehearsal to do a passable job on. Well, it was a complete delight — detailed and crisp and funny. Neither Dave nor I had ever heard the piece performed live (the one piece on the program, in fact, for which that was true for both us), and I gotta say, it is a much funnier piece of music than I’d realized from recordings, or even from Fantasia, where you figure it’s Mickey Mouse that is making you laugh. The music isn’t funny in the sense of being witty and sly and sophisticated, in the way that, say, Richard Strauss could be funny; it’s funny in the way that the Arabian Nights stories or the Uncle Remus stories are funny, a skillfully told comic fable. I was hearing a lot of things in the music I’d never heard before, so much so that I rarely found myself picturing Mickey at all — though of course it’s also true that my ideas about precisely what is happening at any given point in the music have been shaped by Fantasia and may not always be exactly what Dukas thought was happening — if he had such specific ideas at all. So I’m sure the mouse has had its influence over my response to the work all the same.

About a minute into the piece, a couple in the next section over to our right got up and very ostentatiously departed, with a lot of huffy-sounding whispering and letting their seats spring back up with a wham. Jeez, people, if your sensibility is too refined to enjoy ten minutes of earthy comedy, fine, it’s your life, but what’s with making the big show of it? Was the break of several minutes after the Nocturnes too short for you to make a sufficiently Grand Departure? Or did you feel a need to wait until you could be sure of our undivided attention before you oh so ostentatiously demonstrated the superiority of your taste over ours?

Later: Joshua Kosman, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, had the scoop on the sloppy first piece:

The first half of the evening, devoted to music of Berlioz, proved less satisfying. Even the programming itself was a bit of a disappointment, since the program had originally called for Thomas to conduct “Les Bandar-log,” one of Charles Koechlin’s seven orchestral meditations on Kipling’s “Jungle Book.”

But according to a Symphony spokesman, the extended rehearsals required for last week’s partial premiere of Robin Holloway’s massive Fourth Concerto for Orchestra made it impossible to work up the Koechlin score. Instead, the orchestra ran through Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” Overture in a spirited but rough-hewn performance that testified all too clearly to a shortage of prep time.

I was disappointed to see, though, that he let Fantasia get in the way of his enjoyment of the Dukas. His review began with:

The effect of Walt Disney’s efforts on behalf of the music of Paul Dukas has been ambivalent at best.

On the one hand, Mickey Mouse’s hilariously panicky travails in “Fantasia” mean that “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is well known to nearly any listener, even one for whom the rest of Dukas’ meager legacy is no more than a rumor.

But it also means that no performance of this exuberant scherzo — not even one as dynamic and exciting as Wednesday’s offering by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony — can ever be heard without conjuring up images of white-gloved rodents and multiplying broomsticks.

I’m not seeing why this is a bad thing. The Disney cartoon of The Sorceror’s Apprentice is memorable precisely because it’s a masterpiece, brilliant animation tied to brilliant music. Why is it a problem if I’m reminded of it as I listen to the music in the concert hall? It doesn’t keep me from engaging myself with the music, any more than my uncountable associations with uncountable other pieces of music detract from my listening to them again.

And this was a rare opportunity to hear this piece performed live by a first-rate orchestra, and to hear things in it that I never noticed before. Where’s the downside?

At least Joshua Kosman had something to say. Rather like the poems that Berlioz set to music in Les Nuits d’été, the review in the Contra Costa Times is full of swooning, florid writing that doesn’t say much:

That program arrived Wednesday night at Davies Symphony Hall, with [Susan Graham] guiding Hector Berlioz’s six songs of “Summer Nights” into their diaphanous dominion. What a performance by the Texas-bred singer: flickering, refined, delectable, airy, pure, lustrous and emotionally aglow, even feverish, yet as muted as her peach chiffon gown and the sheer shawl around her neck.

Equally remarkable was the performance by Tilson Thomas and the orchestra. With this program, which repeats at Davies through Saturday night, the conductor and his players seem to have walked through a veil into a French mystery room.

The program is devoted to music by Berlioz, Debussy and Dukas. And, as magnificent as was Graham, the evening wound up being a statement by the orchestra about its ability to control music of the most rarified atmosphere and temperament. It stepped up to the challenge of the repertory, playing with supreme delicacy and titillating tension.

Imagine that! A concert about an orchestra’s ability to control music! What next? How about a column about the columnist’s ability to control words!

Like, say, the spelling of “rarefied”.

What a character, Berlioz. Think of him as the Thelonious Monk of 19th century French classical music: clearly arising out of a tradition, yet standing so outside of it with his strange, unforgettable melodies, slanting rhythms, and private worlds of color and expression. …

His “Roman Carnival Overture,” which opened Wednesday’s program, sounds as if it were composed for a private circus: a scorch of strings, an outbreak of pulsating brass, then a calm, salubrious solo for English horn (beautifully played Wednesday by Adam Dinitz) before it all grows lush again, with whorls of flutes and a tensile rush to the finish line.

Boy oh boy, somebody is making his high school music appreciation teacher very, very proud today.

Of Les Nuits d’été, he writes:

Graham’s entrance into this entrancing music was electrifying for its lustrous clarity, and her tone sustained warmth and richness throughout her register. Her diction was perfect, and there was a sense to her performance of a flower opening and releasing elusive fragrances.

That’s some serious wood this guy was sporting. Lustrous clarity. Her tone sustained warmth throughout her register. He uses words like an artist uses tiles in a mosaic.

(The image of a flower opening and releasing its fragrance actually occurs not once but twice in the poems of Les Nuits d’été. Unconscious influence? Plagiarism? Deadpan parody?)

Of one of the songs:

She and the orchestra — those fabulously quiet clarinets, horns, cellos and violas — seemed balanced and poised en pointe, like dancers.

Oh, that orchestra, the one with the musical instruments in it. En pointe, like dancers. Man, I hope Davies dry-cleaned his seat before letting the next person sit there.

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