Music / The Berkshire Review in San Francisco

San Francisco Symphony: Arabella Steinbacher plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; Charles Dutoit conducts Stravinsky and Bartók.

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Arabella SteinbacherArabella Steinbacher

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, March 3, 2012

Charles Dutoit, conductor
Arabella Steinbacher, violin

Stravinsky – Le Chant du rossignol (1917)
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35 (1878)
Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

Every time I hear Stravinsky’s 1917 tone poem, Song of the Nightingale I’m reminded that being a successful revolutionary is difficult. What exactly is a composer to do next, when he has overturned the apple cart so thoroughly with works like The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring? By the standards of those pieces, Song of the Nightingale can seem a pale also-ran, going over “old new ground” from Petrushka. Its Geneva premiere elicited something of a riot, it is true, but before a Swiss audience still unfamiliar with the groundbreaking ballets.

The wider lesson of rhythmic flurries and chinoiserie in Song of the Nightingale is that there are limits to the musical nourishment derivable from exploring color and rhythm alone. While Stravinsky’s harmonic manner influenced hundreds of musical works composed since, it is significant that almost no piece in the symphonic repertory sets out fully to imitate his early ballets. Indeed, if one asks who else composed a successful large work in the tradition of Rite of Spring, there is only one answer: Bartók, with The Miraculous Mandarin. Only the Hungarian composer actually found something further to say within the parameters. Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet style, it appears, is self-limiting.

So, despite the arresting colors which dominate the piece, and an opening flourish the composer admitted resembled the sound of telephones ringing in St. Petersburg, one looks for something else in Song of the Nightingale. This turns out to be a sad jazzy “wah wah” trumpet melody which gives the piece its only real touch of nostalgia. But that strangely comforting sound stays with you. Indeed, it belies Russian origin and opens a door to the Jazz age in a very American way. Something about a gentle trumpet riff goes with the loneliness of dusty Sundays in American cities. Trumpet harmonies like this are everywhere in our music. Copland uses them in Quiet City; Gershwin in American in Paris. William Schuman builds the slow movement of his Third Symphony around them. David Amram relies upon their sadness in his film music for Splendor in the Grass. But it all comes from Stravinsky. Similarly, what we think of as the “Hollywood” sound in our film-music actually derives from Korngold’s Sinfonietta, written in Vienna in 1914. But no one thinks of Vienna when hearing it today.

No matter how good the performance, then, and Charles Dutoit and the SFS were very good indeed, one listens to Song of the Nightingale wondering what comes next. One senses an exhaustion of the rhythmic possibilities of Petrushka and the emergence of a chaste new lyricism. Allied to the “neoclassic” manner Stravinsky would soon develop, this points the way to most of the music Stravinsky would write for the next fifty years.

If the Stravinsky was received with polite applause and a small modicum of enjoyment, nothing prepared the Davies Hall audience for Arabella Steinbacher. This young woman is so beautiful and stately that her entrance was greeted with a stunned gasp. Steinbacher is half-Japanese, half-Austrian, a Munich protege of Anne-Sophie Mutter, tall with light brown hair and beautifully sculpted arms and shoulders. She glided onstage in a creme-colored gown, whose shiny sash matched exactly the depth of coloration in her violin. If this were not enough to woo the listener, Steinbacher quickly seduced the audience with the most ethereally accurate pianissimi this critic has ever heard.

Her view of the Tchaikovsky was a fraction slower than the usual ones built around the big tuttis—but all the better for the subtlety this permitted. There were literally moments when the orchestra, playing as quietly as it knew how, could not match her for delicacy. One of the mesmerizing features of Arabella Steinbacher’s stage presence was the way she swayed to the orchestra—leaning slowly to one side for several bars, then slowly back the other way for an equal number of bars—a mesmerizing dance to the orchestra’s basic pulse. It kept all eyes on her. Indeed, the absence of any sudden movements was the captivating feature of her presence. Just to lower her head and look down could be measured in the bar lines and pulse of the music. This special elegance has already been noted elsewhere in her career and and compared to the special dignity of Grace Kelly. I must say I concur. There are worse characterizations than for a violinist to be known as “Her Serene Highness.”

The Tchaikovsky Concerto has always been popular, but this was the first performance I’ve encountered which completely avoided blowsiness and vulgarity. The critic Eduard Hanslick fulminated a hundred and thirty years ago that this might be music “whose stink one can hear.” Since then the concerto has proved itself better than that, depending upon who performs it. Indeed, these days, if there should be any stink, it is over the music’s plagiarists: In 1983 Bill Conti was awarded an Oscar for the theme music to The Right Stuff, an astronaut movie. His “composition” consisted of the first main tutti in the Tchaikovsky Concerto—-stolen whole—-with five notes tacked on to make for a new cadence. For sheer brazen thievery this takes the cake, only rivalled by John Williams’ wholesale cribbing from Respighi’s “Dance of the Gnomes” to create his march for Star Wars. One used to wonder at the cultural ignorance of Hollywood—at the Sam Goldwyns who wanted to hire “that guy Shakespeare” to write a script. But the old moguls could be forgiven their cultural ignorance. Composers like Conti and Williams, who know better, are simply despicable. Still, the Tchaikovsky marches on, so to speak, its reputation flattered by imitation.

There is no real controversy surrounding the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. This symphony—which it is, despite all the concertante writing—is a triumph of cheerful gloom. Its composer was dying. Newsreels of the world were filled with the newly discovered horrors of the concentration camps. Yet there is something ebullient about the dark side of Concerto for Orchestra. One says “how cool!” rather than “how sad!” upon hearing its many eerie effects. A deathly opening morphs into a joyous game of french horn leapfrog. Ominous tapping in the second movement is resolved into a sweet chorale. The funeral march movement winds down over a quote from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and some warm and consoling major chords. The scherzo makes mockery of Shostakovich (who makes mockery of Lehar) and in the process gives the listener a warm and memorable tune. And the finale whips up a storm of perpetual energy punctuated by what is probably a melody of Hungarian origin—but seems for all the world to be a Scottish reel! Add to this the impressive logic and inevitability in the music, which all seems derived from the work’s opening, and you have a work of art that can stand beside those of Beethoven and Brahms unashamed.

Charles Dutoit thrives on the sort of color to be found in a work like this—Indeed, I have no criticism of the performance, which was electrifying. Already in his late seventies, Dutoit conducts with real vigor and a younger man’s energy. And, confronted with a soloist of such stunning attractiveness…one wouldn’t know he’s Swiss, to be sure! At the conclusion of the concerto, Steinbacher approached the podium and kissed Dutoit slowly and earnestly on each cheek, a slow German emulation of the French manner. This brought forth from Dutoit an entire French social repertory: elaborate hand-kissing, debonair bows and scrapes, arm-sweeping assertions of deference and the like. But there was no irony in any of this. Arabella Steinbacher seemed worthy of the reverence. After all, how should one behave—-when her “Serene Highness” enters the room?

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