Music / The Berkshire Review in San Francisco

Renée Fleming Joins the San Francisco Symphony in Music of Debussy, Holloway and Canteloube

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Renée Fleming. Photo © Decca Andrew Eccles.
Renée Fleming. Photo © Decca/Andrew Eccles.

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Sunday, January 13, 2013

Michael Tilson-Thomas, conductor
Renée Fleming, soprano

Debussy Jeux (1912)
Debussy/Holloway C’est l’extase (2012)
Canteloube Chants d’Auvergne (1923;1927) Three selections
Debussy La Mer, (1905)  

Here we are, a hundred years later, and so much of Claude Debussy’s music still beguiles with its freshness! As Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through an accomplished performance of Jeux last Sunday, I was reminded how much the daily bread of sound in our own lives comes from Debussy’s late style.

We tend to assume experimental music of the time went in only two directions — towards liberated rhythm and tonality with Stravinsky, or into the humanity-shy mathematical dissonances of Schoenberg. The rest, we might suppose, traveled a middle road from Brahms and Wagner to Strauss, Walton and Shostakovich…that sort of thing, anyway. We might, if at all, include Debussy as an also-ran Wagner “gone rogue,” yet sense that he is somehow more important than we immediately grasp.

One sees easily today how the rhythms and shiny poly-tonal moments Stravinsky unleashed in 1913 were not enough to animate, except in moderation, more than a few aggressive ballet scores — and hence why he ultimately turned back for beauty to an earlier time. We equally observe Schoenberg’s attempt to apply a system-corrective, with less success, incorporating tone rows into classical forms with all the charm of a roller-skater on wooden blocks. This went on for seventy years — blocks are durable.

But we tend to overlook one thing music today routinely does, that it never could do before Debussy…turn on a dime! Late Debussy, shorn of Wagner’s seamless melody, moves about in all directions effortlessly, like pixels on a screen. Even Wagner’s music shifts gears, albeit grandly and notably. It captures deep emotion as a beautiful undercurrent. But late Debussy hones to every eyelash-flicker of our pulse and breath, hugs every twist and turn of our will and desire — like a sports car of the soul. It manages to do this with pleasant harmonies, (which tend to disappear infuriatingly before one can remember them), and a touch on percussion so light one scarcely notices being jarred in a new direction. Power steering….Madison Avenue wouldn’t know how to function without imitating it.

Jeux is Debussy’s most purely kaleidoscopic tone poem and the best exemplar I know for this new direction for music. And indeed, it is full of games! Jeux begins with a nearly direct homage to the opening of Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice — and also ends with it. But rather than dance with broom and pail, Debussy takes us into a cool summer twilight, where young adults chase a ball through the bushes, breathless like children again, and are swept up in the freshness of the air, the shadows and each other. Not far into the music two girls nearly kiss in the moonlight, and the young man chasing them turns that romp into what must be music’s most innocent threesome smooch. At this point, underscoring the notion, Debussy gives us two little wriggly “mini-gasms” straight from the love death of Tristan and Isolde. They are light and sylph-like — curiously titillating — but it would be impossible to brood.

From that moment forward there is no real repetition in the music, just subtly moving elusiveness, an orchestra “without feet” gliding through the bushes, ionically energized, with flared nostrils and whistling breath, like an animal sensing the approach of an electrical storm. The music is hard to remember, but not how much pleasure it gives. Nor how impressive it is! The piece is pure rubato, and MTT seemed to be having a field day with it. If there were a criticism to be leveled, it is a common one for this conductor — insufficiently quiet playing. Not a serious problem with Jeux, but a bit more troublesome in the songs to follow.

Robin Holloway is to be thanked (and indeed was thanked in person with a standing ovation!) for pulling together all of Debussy’s Verlaine songs under one orchestral tarpaulin and orchestrating them so beautifully. He might as well have been one of the composer’s original student copyist/orchestrators, for all that one could tell. Renée Fleming was in good form delivering them, resplendent in copper.

Her French pronunciation is perfect — when you can hear it — and when the music is quiet and reflective, which it mostly was. But Fleming has an annoying habit of launching into an impassioned phrase with an unrecognizable gob of sound, so smeared-over that one cannot recognize the word she is purportedly singing. And to the extent that MTT favored a loud profile for the orchestra — these very beautiful performances became verbal approximations.

Similarly, the Canteloube selections after intermission, which included the beautiful Delaissado, revealed Renée Fleming in her most sentimental mood. Singing this time in a Botticelli-like gauze-shawl and wearing a gown whose color no male would know how to identify without help(!) she mimed every emotion to the fullest. I’ve heard Dawn Upshaw manage these with a slightly better flow and a little less ego, but it was still delightful to hear them. Canteloube’s orchestrations glow with warmth. The audience, in any event, oohed and aahed at the dresses and fell in love with the evening that way…

After all this romance in the shadows and rain upon the heart, La Mer’s crisp Nordic seas made for a needed tonic. Written far earlier than Jeux, La Mer is still astonishingly evocative of the ocean’s shifting patterns. Oceans have rhythms, so the ability of the music to turn on a dime is not so important. It would be hard to justify chorales on the tennis court or running through the bushes, but on the ocean it works, and La Mer depends upon them. MTT delivered a fine performance, rounding and expanding Debussy’s several chorale moments fluidly and impressively. As one might have suggested before, though — not enough light and shade? I often wonder with this conductor, where are the hushed moments of the human heart…?

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