Sunday, October 22, 2017

Splendid Shostakovich from Conservatory Orchestra

Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Conservatory Orchestra gave the first of two performances under the baton of visiting conductor Christian Reif. The high point of the evening came with the appearance of the winner of the 2016–17 Piano Concerto Competition, Thai pianist Puripat Paesaroch (’17). His concerto selection was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 102 concerto in F major, which the composer wrote for the graduation performance by his son Maxim at the Moscow Conservatory.

The concerto was first performed in May of 1957, a little over four years after the death of Joseph Stalin. Stalin had been a ruthless scourge of artistic creativity, and Shostakovich had to endure much of the worst of his discontent. Nevertheless, brutal authoritarianism remained in the Soviet Union even after Stalin’s death; and Shostakovich never got over the haunting thought that he could always be a target for those who disliked his music. Nevertheless, the Opus 102 concerto is clearly an affectionate composition and one in which the composer succeeded in reviving that sense of humor that had made his first piano concerto (Opus 35 in C minor) such a thoroughly raucous delight.

Several different moods permeate Opus 102, but unabashed wit lies at its heart, dominating the two outer movements. Within that framework the inner Andante movement is unabashedly intimate and might even be taken as a reflection on the piano concerto writing of Maurice Ravel. However, it is the outrageous prancing of the two Allegro movements that frame this Andante that make the concerto such a delight. It is as if Shostakovich had finally mustered the courage to smile again, and every smile seemed ready to erupt into an unrestrained belly laugh.

Beyond the overall spirit, there is one explicit joke directed at Maxim. The third movement includes an explicit citation of the very first exercise in The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises by Charles-Louis Hanon (not Carl Czerny, who was mistakenly cited in Madison Roesler’s note for the program book). Shostakovich supposedly said that this was the only way to get Maxim to do his exercises!

Paesaroch’s performance rose superbly to every technical challenge that Shostakovich wove into this score and then took things up a notch. He appeared as a highly physical pianist but just as much a focused one. The result was that the composer’s high spirits were unleashed in full force, but the letter of the text was never neglected. From the podium Reif masterfully commanded the many different instrumental punctuation marks that embellished all of that piano work. The attentive listener was well aware of the many colors of the composer’s approach to instrumentation, firmly establishing that this was not a concerto that was only about displaying the soloist’s skills.

Less impressive was the world premiere of the Jim Highsmith Award, granted every year to an SFCM composition student or alumnus. The 2017 winner was Peter Englebert, due to graduate this coming spring after studying with both David Conte and David Garner. Englebert provided the following note for the program book:
Vagaries is a single-movement tone poem for orchestra, a story of sudden and unpredictable change, about experiencing the unpredictable events of life that leave us a changed person. It is about the impossibility of returning to the past: how things that once gave us pleasure no longer, or perhaps we suddenly appreciate things we used to overlook.
That is an awful lot of words for such a short composition. The fact is that “aboutness” is a field planted with numerous deadly mines, even when one is restricting attention to the semantics of natural language. When one moves into any other medium of expression, the mines graduate to the power of thermonuclear devices.

There is a (probably apocryphal) story about John Cage in this regard. One day he was approached by someone on the street who demanded to know was 4’33” was about. Not missing a beat, Cage replied that it was about four minutes and 33 seconds long.

Presumably Englebert recognized that any semantic capacity of music must be connotational, rather than denotational. Such connotations were evident in his opening measure, but they did not last very long. Ultimately, “Vagaries” emerged as an exercise in exploring the full breadth of sonorities of a large symphony orchestra. However, the composer’s ability to balance those different resources was never up to a caliber that could suggest “sudden and unpredictable change.” Instead, one was subjected to soaring gestures by large groups (such as the string section) and punctuations struggling to be heard when so many instruments were so active.

This raises the question of whether balancing those resources was more a problem of conductor John Masko (’18), currently a conducting fellow, or that of the score itself. Masko certainly led the Conservatory Orchestra with confidence, and he appeared to have internalized enough of the score to devote most of his focus to the players. Nevertheless, it was hard to ignore problems with overall balance within all the activity that Engelbert had packed into that score.

On the other hand the problem may have been one of too many musicians packed into a space never intended for such a crowd. That was certainly the case during the second half of the program, when Reif conducted Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 45 “Symphonic Dances.” While the dance qualities of his thematic material are unmistakable, one gets the impression that Rachmaninoff was more interested in finding new dimensions of expressiveness through the exploration of instrumentation. In contrast to Masko, Reif brought a sure hand to the management of the full breadth of Rachmaninoff’s instrumental demands. However, even with his attentiveness to detail, it was clear that there were still sonorities struggling to be heard; and one had to wonder whether that struggle could have been averted by cutting down the string sections enough to provided everyone else with a bit more “breathing space.”

On a more positive note it is important to conclude by observing that, following his success with the Shostakovich concerto, Paesaroch responded to audience approval with an encore. He selected “Feux d’artifice” (fireworks), the last of Claude Debussy’s 24 preludes for solo piano. This seemed like the perfect response to all the fireworks that Shostakovich had unleashed in his Opus 102 concerto; and Paesaroch’s technique in approaching this highly challenging score was consistently right on the money. Nevertheless, “Feux d’artifice” is also one of Debussy’s longer preludes; and Paesaroch seemed to be still trying to establish an overall framework in which the music is more than a series of colorful detonations. Having established his firm hand on every technical challenge that Debussy posed, Paesaroch now needs to start thinking about how to make the “aboutness” of this music (with such a semantically explicit title) succeed to a greater extent than Englebert had achieved with the concept of vagaries.