The program for the second week of Charles Dutoit’s visit to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall consisted of only two compositions. For the first half he conducted Francis Poulenc’s 1951 setting of the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” hymn; and the intermission was followed by Hector Berlioz’ Opus 22 “Te Deum” setting, composed in 1849. Both compositions required the full force of the SFS Chorus, prepared by their Director Ragnar Bohlin and supplemented in the Berlioz with the Pacific Boychoir (Kevin Fox, Director). Each required only one soloist, soprano Erin Wall in the Poulenc and tenor Paul Groves in the Berlioz. The Berlioz also required a major part for organ, performed by Jonathan Dimmock.
Dutoit approached both of his selections with attentive enthusiasm. Between the clarity of his beat and the expressiveness of his body language, all performers were well prepared to deliver his interpretations, and their responsiveness was always aligned with his intentions. I was a bit puzzled, however, as to why he felt the need to conduct the organ solos in the Berlioz, unless he thought it was necessary to convey the rhetoric of those passages to the other performers to achieve appropriate transitions.
Nevertheless, particularly in the context of last week’s offerings of Maurice Ravel and Edward Elgar, the compositions themselves came off as relatively weak efforts. The Poulenc was receiving its first SFS performances, and one could appreciate Dutoit wanting to bring it out of the shadow of neglect. The text was certainly appropriate in anticipation of the Lenten season, but Poulenc’s approach to that text had mixed results. On the positive side, he effectively got away from the persistent trochaic tetrameter that makes the text annoyingly tedious when read aloud. Instead, he sought out rhythmic patterns shaped around individual words, often with considerable imagination.
Nevertheless, this is a text the speaks to the faithful through that persistence, as if enduring the full duration of the verses is tantamount to enduring the Crucifixion itself. To this Poulenc added extensive structural prolongations, often dwelling on his motifs long after he had made his point with them. Thus, in spite of the diversity in his rhetoric and his use of that diversity to capture the different emotional attitudes of the hymn’s verses, the whole affair just went on for too long; and, in that respect, the additional prolongations applied to the final coda felt almost punishing.
However, if the overall structure had a problem of duration, much of that time was made bearable through inventive approaches to instrumentation, the lush blend of the choral sound, and Wall’s delivery of the transcendent soprano solos. The Berlioz, on the other hand, was all about excess in every way, shape, and form. Over the course of any five minutes of this composition, one could appreciate the composer’s ability to evoke a truly stirring sense of grandeur. Unfortunately, the piece went on for about 45 minutes; and there is only so much grandeur even the most sympathetic listener can take before craving the moral equivalent of a simple glass of cold water. That Dutoit could manage his resources well enough to sustain Berlioz’ pedal-to-the-metal energy levels for that entire duration was certainly impressive. However, to continue the metaphor, I prefer not to think of a concert in terms of the Indianapolis 500 and the question of how many laps a driver can take before the need for a pit stop.