Petrenko conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Respighi, Bartók, and Pärt, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Piano, in his SFS Debut

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Ottorino Respighi
Ottorino Respighi

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, October 8, 2012

Vasily Petrenko, conducting.
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano

Pärt – Fratres for Strings and Percussion (1977/1991)
Bartók – Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945)
Respighi – Fountains of Rome (1916)
Pines of Rome (1924)

Just call me Caesar!

Several weeks out and here I am, pulse quickened, still in thrall to legions from the Pines of Rome passing in review beneath my feet! The kaleidoscopic power of Respighi’s music hasn’t faded in my ears. Most patrons think of their car-keys within moments of a concert’s end. I’m still growling-out my version of “Catacombs” in the shower and banging kettledrum fists on the tiles three weeks later… But I was fortunate to sit a few rows above the trombones during the second half of the Vasily Petrenko’s recent stint with the San Francisco Symphony, and the acoustic perspective there provided an astonishingly powerful, sonically blended experience. So much for seating. But it says something about a conductor, too, when you are still marching about weeks later, barely able to contain within yourself the excitement you experienced!

Davies is a wonderful-sounding large hall for up-close listening. Symphony Hall, Boston and Carnegie Hall can remind one of cats going at the upholstery, if you sit too near the strings.  But from the side terraces above the stage, Davies is visceral without attacking the listener. You get above and behind the strings, bestriding the tuba, trombones and timpani like steeds in battle. Surfing waves from the basses carry you over the orchestra. It is definitely a grand “ride”and conducive to megalomania!

When the concert began, I was just as happy to occupy a more traditional place further back in the hall. Vasily Petrenko began the evening with an alabaster performance of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. Like Elgar’s Nimrod variation and Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Fratres has become an all-purpose lament for public occasions, and its contemplative nature is perfectly suited for this. It is simply but elusively constructed, ten minutes long, timelessly beautiful and just monkishly reserved enough not to wear out with familiarity.  In performance here, Petrenko found a silvery emotional distance that seemed eternal, the same way he does in Shostakovich. But listen carefully, as these slowly cycling moments allude to bits of Tubin, Sibelius and even, in one surprising spot, the Largo from Dvorak’s New World symphony!

Petrenko was soon joined by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in the Bartók Third Concerto. “Soon” is a relative term. For some reason, it took a small army of helpers and inordinate delay to bring a piano up from the basement. But the stage crew’s house manager so resembled actor James Stewart (in white haired and blue-blazered Tonight Show mode) that the interlude proved entertaining. Unlike the deceased but poetic Mr.Stewart, he chose not to entertain the audience with doggerel.

Petrenko looked, if possible, even taller, slimmer, younger and more Nordic these days, sporting one of the new spiky haircuts held aloft in strange avian places by mousse or wax. Bavouzet emerged the eager stage-Continental: short wide strides, pointed shoes toed outward, and dark “helmet hair,” like Riccardo Muti’s twenty years ago. But there was no stylistic smorgasbord, when it came to their collaboration. Bavouzet has recently recorded a gorgeous De Falla Nights in the Gardens of Spain for Chandos, capturing perfectly the atmosphere of the music, and his grasp of the Bartók was equally secure. They made a jewel of it.

This piano concerto illustrates, though, one of the mysteries of composition.  It greatly resembles Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, and was written in the same general style, at the same time. Yet the Concerto for Orchestra is easy to hum and remember, and the Third Piano Concerto nearly impossible to recall. The piece is popular, yet always meets-up with a sort of mental non-recognition: “How does that go, again?”

The reason for this, I think, is that it is both busy and episodic. Unlike Rachmaninoff, where the piano is constantly on the go—but the music itself moves in long sweeping arcs—here there is frequently too much to take in. It is all euphonious and spirited, but sylph-elusive. Amusingly, in the Adagio, the music starts to sound American in places, like something quiet in Bernstein’s On the Town. If Bartók had lived longer, he might have become an uncomfortable stylistic hybrid, like Hindemith, whose late-life attempts at employing American folk tunes in a work like the Pittsburgh Symphony sound strangely unidiomatic, grafted on to his German style.

For many decades the reputation of Respighi suffered from an opposite problem: being too closely identified, if anything, with the historical grandeur of his nation. My father’s generation was embarrassed by the Cecil B. De Mille qualities to be found in Respighi’s Roman Trilogy, and Toscanini was criticized for the very idea of championing the music. But fascination with the pieces themselves, particularly Fountains and Pines, has outlived all critics, and it now becomes obvious that as an orchestrator, Respighi was the equal of Strauss and Ives—and in some ways more profoundly evocative. Strauss excelled at depicting the present—a man breathing his last in a sick room—a day’s walk in the alps—a baby splashing in the bathtub. Ives excelled at the random chaos of crowds.

But Respighi adds to this virtuosity a vivid ability to teleport-up mysteries from the historical past. His harmonic world is more modal than Strauss’.  Melodies appear to begin in mid-stream, as if always timelessly, exotically there—we can smell them, if only we will listen—and there seems always to be a deepening texture to the music, something ever pulsing or moving on beneath what is going on—like history itself—chillingly, profoundly real. That’s Respighi’s genius. The strange authenticity of the murkiness. He revives dead centuries, and like Ives, depicts chaos understandably. When legions march up the Appian Way in Pines of Rome, we realize this is not the score to Ben Hur, a modern caricature of grandeur, but an ear to the ground long long ago.

Think of just the beginning of this. It may be that Respighi’s use of quietly unstable and oscillating harmonies liberates the imagination: What is that? Is something coming? Everything pulses almost inaudibly, tentatively….and meanwhile, we smell the dawn, but somehow it isn’t like our dawn: it smells of lamp oil and charcoal and perspiration and animals. And that quality of seeming to approach—but not yet getting any nearer? That is a mystery, too. How different from your typical march!  By the time the world explodes in military chaos, the main martial thrust a sandwich of rhythmic bootsteps and horses heaving forward at full canter, one feels Respighi has brought a whole world alive for us.

Vasily Petrenko presided like Caligula at his most psychotic. Moment for moment he’d give a little quizzical glance, raise an eyebrow, make a small gesture like plucking a rose, and bring to the fore some screeching detail pulled out of the texture like Spaghetti. His indifference seemed to magnify the power of the effect, until with a final parade ground heel-stamp, the army came to a halt before him, followed by the loudest three chords in all of music. That the San Francisco Symphony found the reserves to play this shatteringly seemed to defy the laws of physics and fatigue. The house came down in a big way at the conclusion—just plain screaming. This combination of Fountains and Pines makes for a stunning back to back program choice. More conductors should program it.

I suppose it would take a public poll to know how many listeners in Davies Hall felt “Imperial” by the end of this concert. I imagine there were a lot of us.  It was one of the most memorable I’ve attended. But in the meantime—you have my permission—just call me Caesar!

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