Spinning Straw into Gold (or at Least Lots of Brass)

Last night Dave and I went to Davies Hall for a concert. When we’d bought the tickets a couple months ago, the program was to be conducted by Oliver Knussen, and it was to include some of his own music (including some music from Where the Wild Things Are) as well as Pictures at an Exhibition in the Stokowski orchestration, which was an attraction for Dave and me because it’s performed much less often than the standard Ravel orchestration, and neither of us have heard it live.

But Mr. Knussen got sick (probably with the flu that’s been going around, I figure — Dave and I have both had it, as have quite a few of our friends), and then his replacement got sick, and on Wednesday I got an email message from my friend Donato Cabrera that he was going to be conducting all three concerts, Thursday through Saturday, on less than 24 hours’ notice. The program had been changed, though, obviously to pieces that could be gotten up on a minimum of rehearsal time. All Mozart for the first half, and Pictures in the Ravel orchestration for the second.

Donato and I met because he was the original musical director for the Tales of Hoffmann at Berkeley Opera in February, and we had a few meetings back in late summer of last year to discuss the production, but he had to drop out shortly after auditions. Donato’s a very sharp guy and I was sorry not to have the chance to work with him. Maybe another time. (As it turned out, Ernest Knell, who took over for Hoffmann, was wonderful to work with, very sharp and meticulous.)

The concert got off to a terrific start with the Figaro overture, which struck me as one of the best I’ve heard. Dave said to me afterward that you could tell he’d conducted the whole opera before and not just the overture, and that he understood it. Next was the cantata Exsultate, jubilate, which I’m sure was very nice if cantatas are your thing, but they aren’t much mine. Clearly they had had to find something that the soloist for the canceled Knussen songs, soprano Lisa Saffer, could perform with the orchestra on very short notice. Nothing much wrong with it, just not much to my taste — I’d really wanted to hear her sing the Knussen pieces.

Finishing the first half was a very good Prague Symphony, crisp and confident and enjoying the constant sidestepping into and out of the minor that runs through all the movements. The second half was Pictures. Donato told me by email that he’d had rather performed the Stokie orchestration if he’d had more notice, but that the decision was made before he took over the podium. Dave mentioned, too, that it’s possible that the orchestra scores for the Stokie were traveling with Mr. Knussen (or, at the moment, not traveling) rather than in the symphony library, whereas they certainly would have had scores for the Ravel version at hand. Anyway, Donato conducted a very impressive Pictures, more straightforwardly paced than finely nuanced, but sounding very, very good all the way through.

Didn’t hurt, either, that the piece ends with a big, exciting, brassy fanfare, the sort of thing that audiences go wild over. And sure enough, the audience went wild when the music ended, and Donato and the orchestra got a long, long ovation, with a lot of people bravoing and maybe a third of the audience even standing. I was surprised by that, as it was a very good concert but didn’t seem like a standing-O concert. The audience may have come prepared to enjoy it, though — there’d been a good review in the Chron that morning, and always increases an audience’s enthusiasm.

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