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Ionarts-at-Large: Sibelius in San Francisco

Robert R. Reilly was out West and reports from San Francisco.

On Friday evening, November 13th, there was good news and bad news at the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s concert, led by the able guest conductor Semyon Bychkov at Davies Symphony Hall. The bad news was that the rare opportunity to hear the seldom-programmed Schumann Cello Concerto was lost because French cellist Gautier Capucon was indisposed. The good news—assuming you like Ravel—was that Pavane pour une infante defunte and La Valse were the substitutes.

The concert began with Henri Dutilleux’s Metaboles. If Dutilleux (b. 1916) was, as the program notes claim, attempting “to escape the influence of Ravel,” whose music he loves, we can be grateful that he did not entirely succeed. Metaboles still sounds impressionistic in its refined, transparent textures and sound world. One is simply less sure of what the music is an impression of: A series of floating gestures and textures, untethered from any specific thing, only occasionally melding together into something (thematically) recognizable. Bychkov notably detected the long line in this music, even where I didn’t and that made the piece far more arresting in this concert than it has been for me from my familiarity with it on Yan Pascal Tortelier’s Chandos CD. Bychkov was rhythmically astute; the orchestra was completely on point in all departments; and together they achieved a superb crescendo at the conclusion.

Next came a lovely rendition of the Pavane, and then La Valse. The various orchestral sections underneath the evolving waltz in La Valse bubbled delectably. Bychkov and the SFO, imbued with a sense of fun, toyed with waltz rhythms in a way that caused smiles throughout the audience. The playing was suitably nuanced and the build to the apotheosis at the conclusion brilliantly done. Not just considering what must have been minimal rehearsal time, this was a crowd pleaser from a virtuoso orchestra that clearly enjoyed what it was doing so well with a conductor with whom it was in complete rapport. Now if only they had played the Ravel before the Dutilleux to help put in perspective what Dutilleux was trying to do in his attempt to escape Ravel’s influence.

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Carl Nielsen, Symphony No.5 & Concertos et al.,
Blomstedt / SFS
The second half of the program was the Sibelius Fifth Symphony. It is the main reason I came, since this is the composition that ignited my rampage through classical music several decades ago. The SFO earned a reputation for Sibelius when Herbert Blomstedt was its conductor, and my expectations were high. Their recordings of the 7 Symphonies for Decca had achieved near-mythical status, going for triple digits on Amazon before they were finally re-issued in a convenient box set. My concert experiences with the Fifth—notably with Sir Alexander Gibson in the 1980s and Lorin Maazel in the 1990s— have generally been good, too. Among more recordings than I care to admit to my wife, my favorite remains the one that first riveted me—Leonard Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic (Sony).

As he was composing his Fifth Symphony, Sibelius wrote, “I begin to see the mountain that I shall surely ascend. God opens his door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” Without knowing that Sibelius had said this, that is what I heard and experienced in my first encounter with this work. It shook me. Sibelius is dealing with the forces of Nature and of Nature’s God from which they come. He grasped the harmony of the spheres, and played it for us. The right reaction is one of awe, if not something approximating terror, at the approach of the transcendent. The interpretive danger is to humanize this music, to succumb to its beauties. Beauty should be a by-product of this work, not its center. Sir John Barbirolli had an occasional tendency to get swamped by Sibelius’s beauty, while Bernstein captured its glacial remoteness and complete majesty.

Bychkov and the SFO delved into the deep sense of mystery and excitement in the first movement. The strings were breathtakingly good in their runs. The main theme got precisely the heft it needed. Though Bychkov leaned a bit in the Barbirolli direction of beautification, the work can withstand a less than Nordic approach. In fact, it glowed under Bychkov’s baton and skirted any sense of softness. My lofty expectations were met—except in the last movement where Bychkov sacrificed some grandeur for beauty... not an advantageous exchange in my book. Nonetheless, it was Bychkov’s clear interpretive choice, and it was interesting to see how well it worked on its own terms, even as I missed the frisson. In the magnificent climax, Bychkov and the SFO reached from a terrestrial plane to a celestial one. The playing got there but the interpretation not quite. Still: Next time I hear Sibelius’ Fifth, I will think of Bychkov alongside Maazel and Gibson. RRR

(Gautier Capucon had recovered in time for the Saturday evening performance of the Schumann.)

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