Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Alasdair Neale took the podium in his capacity as Principal Guest Conductor of the Conservatory Orchestra. This was the second concert in the group’s five-concert 2013–14 season; and, like the first, the emphasis was on the richness of the ensemble sound. However, last night’s program explored that richness on both large and small scales.
Neale emphasized the large scale during the second half of the program, which consisted entirely of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 45. This is a three-movement composition which he called “Symphonic Dances,” apparently because it was originally intended for a ballet entitled “Fantastic Dances.” That title would appear to explain why any sense of dance is significantly distorted, particularly in the outer two movements. The middle movement has a more well-defined sense of waltz that manages to persist through a series of ominous interruptions that recur in rondo-like fashion. It also concludes with an energetic galop, which may have been intended to recall the similar coda by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky for the “snowflake” waltz that concludes the first act of his Nutcracker ballet.
However, if the emphasis of Opus 45 is on the “symphonic,” rather than the “dances,” the score is far more adventurous than what one encounters in any of Rachmaninoff’s “actual” symphonies. More to the point, it is highly sensitive to the interplay of diverse sonorities, coming up with some of the grandest gestures one is likely to encounter in a concert hall. These are then offset by some highly expressive solo work, much of which comes from instruments rarely accorded that honor, such as the viola and the alto saxophone.
Under Neale’s direction, the Conservatory Orchestra rose to the two major challenges of this composition, keeping that full palette of sonorities in proper balance at all times and moving the progress of the score at a pace that never wallows in any particularly lush moment. Neale took at interesting approach to the opening, which has the rather enigmatic tempo marking “Non allegro.” Most conductors tend to interpret this as taking the tempo down a notch without regressing to a more pronounced Moderato. Neale decided to go the other direction, leaning enough toward Vivace to establish that the entire composition can be approached as a cauldron of nervous energy. The SFCM students clearly bought into this premise, and the result was a far more stimulating approach to Rachmaninoff than is usually encountered.
At the opposite extreme Neale led the ensemble to support guitarist John Charles Britton as soloist in Jean Françaix’s concerto. In this case the scoring calls for the support of only the string section. Neale stripped that down to a minimal chamber orchestra size, the sort one would have expected to accompany Antonio Vivaldi’s guitar concerto. Britton, in turn, used minimal amplification support, just for the take of being heard throughout the Concert Hall. The result was an overall balance that could not be faulted.
Françaix is often dismissed as a “lightweight” composer. It is true that most of his individual pieces tend to be on the short side, which may be one reason that this concerto has five movements. On the other hand he had an imaginative capacity for wit, so I tend to feel that his brevity reflected the rhetorical judgment of making sure that no joke overstays its welcome.
In this particular concerto much of that wit comes from the imaginative diversity of the different ways in which instruments interact. The chamber scale of the orchestra allows for a variety of solo voices, giving the impression that the guitarist is the principal guest at a very large dinner party. He (in this case) is the center of attention; but everyone else seems to have something to say, not always necessarily to him. In this case Neale’s job was to express the full scope of that interplay without ever distracting from the role of the guitarist as principal soloist, and the result was a delightful reminder that we should all have more opportunities to listen to Françaix’s engaging inventions.
The evening began with a student conductor, Tyler Catlin (’15). He prepared performances of the first two of Claude Debussy’s orchestral nocturnes, “Nuages” (clouds) and “Fêtes” (festivals). This provided an excellent opportunity to listen to his capacity to command an ensemble on both intimate and grand scales. Debussy’s decision to call these pieces nocturnes did not come from the piano repertoire but from a series of paintings by James McNeill Whistler. The notes from the program book by Maggie Thompson also cited J. M. W. Turner as an influence.
This may deserve a digression on a specific Turner painting, which may have one of the longest titles in art history: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis. The reference to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe involves his treatise Theory of Colours (Zur Farbenlehre), which may be taken as a poet’s response to the scientific theory of optics, which had been given its first systematic treatment by Isaac Newton. Turner’s painting is an example of the use of pigments as a medium for synthesizing visual effect, rather than simply depicting.
This is how Debussy worked with the instruments of the orchestra in his response to such an artistic technique. “Nuages” is a piece of stunning transparency, which can only be appreciated in performance rather than through the inadequate medium of a recording. Debussy is concerned not only with bringing a diverse assortment of instrumental voices into the mix but also with meticulous control over the number of instruments to any given part. One might almost say that he worked with every single instrument the same way that pioneers of electronic music in the middle of the twentieth century worked with individual sound-producing circuits. In contrast “Fêtes” captures the wild abandon of an energetic street festival in which the observer is assaulted with activity from every possible direction. Here, again, however, the emphasis is more on the effect of the experience, rather than details of depiction.
Catlin conducted in a manner that made clear his appreciation that effect was of the essence. His control was always disciplined, but his attention embraced the full scope of the Conservatory Orchestra. He thus served up an excellent introduction to the remainder of the evening, particularly since the contrast between the two Debussy pieces would anticipate the contrast between the remaining works on the program.