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James Conlon brings a program of sharp contrasts to the SFS podium

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This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, James Conlon returned as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony with an Eastern European program of sharply contrasting compositions. The concerto soloist was pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 35 piano concerto in C minor. This is usually called his first piano concerto. However, the solo work for piano is complemented by an extended solo trumpet part (performed by Mark Inouye); and accompaniment is provided only by a string ensemble.

Shostakovich composed this concerto in 1933 at a time when he was not shy about making any number of irreverent gestures in his musical rhetoric. At that time it would not have entered his consciousness that in a mere three years he would be denounced by Soviet authorities. Indeed, in 1933 his irreverence may have been taken as the act of a faithful Soviet musician thumbing his nose at all that was abhorrent in Western Europe.

This afternoon Conlon, Thibaudet, and Inouye all performed as if their “Western values” were in no way offended by Shostakovich’s raucous humor. Indeed, they all seemed to “get” the jokes and were quite willing to play along with them, from the almost mindless running up and down the keyboard in scale steps as the piano’s introduction, through the deliberately mawkish Lento, and all the way into the final measures of the Allegro con brio, which had all the earmarks of music for a circus troupe taking its final bows. There was also the surface-level absurdity of having both piano and trumpet as soloists; and Shostakovich pulled a fair number of gags about their incompatibility. About the only unhappy element in this concerto is our knowledge that Shostakovich’s thoroughly entertaining skills as a clown would soon be crushed into oblivion by Joseph Stalin and all those lackeys installed to do his every bidding.

The idea of tragedy lurking behind comedy may have motivated Conlon’s symphony selection following the intermission, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 74 (“Pathétique”) symphony in B minor. The title for this symphony originated with Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest. He initially approved but then changed his mind. However, his publishers felt otherwise; and the title stuck.

This symphony complements Shostakovich’s concerto in one particularly interesting lexical matter. Like the opening of the Shostakovich concerto, the entire score is dominated by motifs based on stepwise motion through the scale, both rising and falling. However, Tchaikovsky turns these motifs into building blocks for a far more emotionally intense rhetoric.

As the listener progresses through the symphony’s movements (s)he becomes aware that there is a determined conflict between rising and falling patterns. The first movement begins with a rising motif but concludes with a falling one. By the time one reaches the final (fourth) movement, the falling motif has grown into a bizarre theme that emerges through exchanges of notes between first and second violins. In that movement there are a few efforts from rising motifs to restore the balance; but, inevitably, the movement is downhill all the way, with a final descent into the lowest registers, where it is snuffed out in silence.

Conlon definitely had a keen sense of this overall logic of descent. However, while many conductors have failed to avoid the trap of wallowing in bathos, Conlon brought a clear account of each of the building blocks behind Tchaikovsky’s structure, allowing the audience to follow step-by-step how they were being assembled. There were still moments of totally arresting climax; but this was a reading through which the attentive listener could readily grasp the symphony in its entirety, rather than only its most dramatic elements.

The Shostakovich concerto was preceded by another instance of Eastern European raucousness, the Allegro con brio (third) scherzo movement from Erwin Schulhoff’s fifth symphony. In his 48 years, before dying of tuberculosis in the Nazi Wülzburg concentration camp, Schulhoff was a highly prolific composer venturing into many different styles. He believed that jazz was as appropriate in the concert hall as in clubs and cabarets and embraced it with wild abandon for symphonic and chamber music. He waxed enthusiastically over the Viennese expressionists and the Berlin Dadaists. He also beat John Cage to the punch with a composition consisting entirely of rests.

The scherzo for his fifth symphony is a wild roller-coaster ride, propelled at a breakneck pace by driving rhythms that seldom relent. In his brief introductory remarks to the audience, Conlon compared it to sticking your hand in an electrical outlet. I would say that, in the context of what later composers have done with extreme dynamics, Schulhoff’s shock value has abated a bit. These days the scherzo is more likely just to be exhilarating. However, it is so intricately conceived that the sense of exhilaration is more than enough to reward to listener. Conlon conducted with all the necessary precision and a firm command of dynamic contours that escalated the music above the level of a mere klaxon blast. As an opening selection, it certainly got the audience’s attention, priming everyone in Davies for that antic side of Shostakovich that is so frequently ignored in the context of his tragic history.

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