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Conductor Lionel Bringuier makes his San Francisco Symphony debut at Davies

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Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, conductor Lionel Bringuier, who will begin serving as Chief Conductor and Music Director for the 2014–15 season of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, made his debut on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). It was an evening of mixed results, disclosing a range of assets and liabilities. In the interest of beginning with the assets, the program that Bringuier prepared may best be examined in reverse order.

Indeed, by concluding the evening with Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse,” Bringuier left the impression that last impressions are the most lasting; and, in this particular case, he may have been correct. Written on a commission from Serge Diaghilev from his Ballets Russes, Ravel composed this piece between 1919 and 1920, using sketches that date back to 1906. Europe was just beginning to recover from the First World War; and there is a strong tendency for the listener to approach this music as a psychotic reflection on the horrors of that war, even if Ravel denied this proposition on every possible occasion.

What Ravel would not deny was that he was more interested in the essence of the Viennese waltz than in actually depicting that waltz, let alone trying to compete with the Strauss family. He would also probably recognize that this essence was realized by deconstructing the waltz into fragments (anticipating the French literary analysis movement by about half a century), reassembled so that almost all of the themes vanish as soon as they are apprehended. For Ravel this may have been nothing more than an exercise in abstraction, but it is not difficult to read into that abstraction strong connotations of the shattered memories of shattered bodies and minds.

Bringuier was particularly adept in capturing the fog of uncertainty that envelops these vague suggestions of themes. He also recognized the rhetorical power behind Ravel’s use of forte dynamics, particularly when reinforced with the percussion. There are four powerful strokes on the bass drum that attempt to energize one of the themes trying to make a full statement, but these have the same macabre effect as the hammer blows that interrupt the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony. Bringuier seemed to recognize their capacity for shock value and deployed them mercilessly. The result was a straightforward effort to honor the abstractions that Ravel had in mind while couching them in a rhetoric that encouraged associating those abstractions with post-war malaise.

“La Valse” was preceded by Henri Dutilleux’ “Métaboles.” Ironically, the last time this piece was performed by SFS, it had been preceded by “La Valse.” This was in November of 2009, when conductor Semyon Bychkov had been required to make a last-minute program change after cellist Gautier Capuçon had to be hospitalized. Ravel had been an early influence on Dutilleux; but that also meant that, as Dutilleux matured, he made conscious efforts to move away from that influence.

In the case of “Métaboles,” the result may be considered by taking Ravel’s approach to fragmented abstraction in “La Valse” and moving it in new directions. Last night’s program book reproduced the same Ronald Gallman essay that had been used in 2009; and one of the most important points made in that essay was that an appropriate translation for the title would be “metamorphoses.” Structurally, the piece is a single movement in five uninterrupted sections entitled “Incantation,” “Linear,” “Obsessive,” “Torpid,” and “Flamboyant.” However, the character of the piece resides not in how each of these qualities is depicted but in the gradual (metabolic?) pace of metamorphosis through which each section “evolves” into its successor. Thus, as is the case in “La Valse,” there is an ongoing flux of thematic elements, each of which fades into another after it has barely been apprehended.

Bringuier brought a clear understanding of Dutilleux’ logic and rhetoric to his performance of “Métaboles.” His meticulous attention to detail was unfaltering. Just as important, however, was his ability to keep that ongoing “evolving” flow in motion, allowing the listener to recognize each of the stages of the metamorphic process but never settling into any of those stages. This is music that definitely deserves to be performed more frequently; and Bringuier came across as a first-rate champion for promoting such performances.

With so much awareness and attention to detail, one has to wonder why his approach to Johannes Brahms’ Opus 15 piano concerto in D minor (the first) was given such a disappointing account. Here was a conductor who had clearly mastered the rich orchestral scores of two major twentieth-century French compositions. However, when leading SFS and piano soloist Hélène Grimaud in Brahms, never once did he make eye contact with any of the low strings. Listening to the opening measure, one might have thought the concerto began with a timpani solo. The double basses could have been out to lunch for all the attention they received. Indeed, considering the strength of the two violin sections, it was puzzling that the numbers of both cellos and basses seemed markedly reduced.

The result was a distressing journey in imbalance that pervaded all three movements of the concerto. It almost seemed as if Bringuier was only interested in contributions to the melodic line, thus ignoring the bass line that established the foundation of harmonic progression. In the midst of this grammatical confusion, Grimaud gamely launched in with an energetic approach to her solo part. At least on the keyboard the proper relationship between melody and harmony was established, as were all of the bravura textures through which the soloist engaged with the ensemble. Nevertheless, Bringuier’s failure to balance the orchestral instruments left Grimaud with a struggle to find her place in his landscape; and, while she held up well in the face of this adversity, one got the impression that she would have been happier had Brahms fared just as well.

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