Music / The Berkshire Review in San Francisco

Michael Francis Conducts the San Francisco Symphony in “My Classic Americana,” With Pianist Charlie Albright in His San Francisco Debut

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Michael Francis. Photo: Chris Christodoulou
Michael Francis. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Davies Hall, San Francisco
The San Francisco Symphony
Thursday, July 19, 2012

Michael Francis – conductor
Copland – Appalachian Spring
Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue
Charlie Albright – piano

Bernstein – Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Copland – Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo

It’s silly season again at the San Francisco Symphony! A quick report from the front. And a debut teaser for later. Do we have a new Horowitz?

In perfect weather, with no need for a sylvan retreat, we San Franciscans simply shine a colored spotlight on the Davies Hall organ pipes in July, and Presto, music becomes festive! “My Classic Americana” is one of several programs containing well-known works Michael Francis has been leading this summer, with super zest and limited rehearsal. At times he’s got us clapping along in such good spirits, we might as well be at the Albert Hall Proms. The young Englishman has now conducted several summer seasons in San Francisco and is a great hit with our audience, bringing just the right touch of knowing wit, uncomplicated musicality, good spirits and schoolboy snark to the proceedings.

Far beyond this, Michael Francis is the sort of conductor whose gestures a listener can read intuitively. His body makes a movement — and something audible happens. Francis resembles a tall cross between classic British actor David Niven and Facebook’s Marc Zuckerberg. (A terrifying thought but a decent picture, fortunately.) More importantly, he has long arms which sweep powerfully, and expressive fingers. And Francis moves with the music in an unbuttoned way, at high energy, as a good dancer would — the most important thing of all. That is immensely helpful to an audience. The music played at this concert depends for its very lifeblood upon that special “Tin Pan Alley” swagger which almost defines the “American” in our musical heritage. And it is abundantly clear that Francis “gets” it — and us.

When I listen to Appalachian Spring, the ghosts of Leonard Bernstein and his famous CBS recording are always with me. No one has come along who quite could dance as he did in this music — and still break your heart at the same time. Michael Tilson Thomas, a Bernstein protege, indeed the Bernstein musical heir in so many ways, does not fully capture the rhythmic abandon of this ballet in his otherwise very fine recording. Michael Francis almost did on Thursday.

If Appalachian Spring carries within it a sadness and reserve which allows for occasional understatement, then Rhapsody in Blue permits no such quarter. It demands rhythmical hypermania, the more nearly demented the better. And Charlie Albright, just a year out of Harvard, let us have it in spades. This tall, slightly birdlike young pianist has spikes for fingers. Not since Horowitz have I heard an energy level like it. And I doubt even Horowitz ever had the convulsive left hand Albright does. It snaps his rhythms shut like a screen door on a short spring. You almost lose your fingers thinking about it.

And Albright has a jazzy fantasy to his playing, which would have made even Horowitz seem like stodgy Wilhelm Kempf! Albright gave the Alla Turca last movement of Mozart’s Sonata No. 11 as an encore and brought down the house. This movement used to be performed on the fortepiano with extra percussion effects in Mozart’s time, so anything goes. And, indeed, everything went! It might as well have been by Liszt. The reaction was electric. I don’t know the last time I heard an audience scream like that over a pianist. Albright is going to be famous in a hurry… Wow! Just plain Wow!

It was in this sort of mood that Michael Francis took to the podium after intermission, snapped his fingers, and brought Bernstein’s dysfunctional West Side to life. He finger-snaps well! (Imagine Boulez or Blomstedt doing it, if you think it can’t be done badly!) Ever since Dudamel performed the Symphonic Dances with bass players twirling their instruments, I think there has been an underground competition to see who else can be as exciting as that. Well, we came close! Francis had real fun with the sass of the piece. The “cool fugue” might have been just a bit more slithery and “west sidey,” but for sheer abandon and decibels, the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Francis did us proud.

It was similarly the case with Copland’s city slicker Buckaroos. I’ve never quite gotten over being slightly amused at the thought of so much Wyoming coming out of Brooklyn. It doesn’t seem to fit, like Japanese cowboy movies, but the piece works and nothing is more important than that.

So then, what for an encore after such a brassy evening? Well, more brass, of course! The audience had voted online for Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and here is where Michael Francis and the orchestra went after the Dudamel mantle. The brass performed it standing and brought down the house. No twirling, though! With a trumpet sticking out of your face, you’d have to pirouette… In any case, as the staff MC had said into his house-mike at the outset. “Please don’t look at the trombones — it only encourages them!”

What can one say? It was a disobedient night.

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