When Pablo Heras-Casado last appeared as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) at Davies Symphony Hall in January of 2012, he prepared a program of four compositions all on the scale of a chamber orchestra. On his return visit this week, as if he felt regret at not having engaged the full SFS resources last year, he prepared a traditional overture-concerto-symphony program that abounded with grand gestures in the styles of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries (but not in that order). It would probably be safe to say that no instruments were neglected in pursuit of those gestures.
That grandeur was probably at its most deliberate and effective after the intermission. The symphony portion of the program went to Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 100 in B-flat major (his fifth). This is a symphony with a deep-seated love for fortissimo; and, if Prokofiev could be rapturous over a full-throated fortissimo, he would get positively ecstatic when that fortissimo was colored by a generous supply of dissonant intervals.
What is surprising, however, is that, with our current sensemaking capabilities, there is nothing particularly shocking in those dissonances. Prokofiev got the shock value out of his system when he was in Paris and that was what all the other composers there were doing. As a proper Soviet citizen, he had to be careful with his dissonances; so they became sources of stimulation rather than provocation. For the most part he succeeded in taking this rhetorical approach, and in Opus 100 he succeeded very well indeed.
For the conductor, however, the real challenge involves managing the high intensity of the dynamics. No ensemble can put out full-blast all the time. Thus, Prokofiev’s approach to the fortissimos he so loved was to couch them in a series of waves, each one building to its crest and then subsiding. It is then up to the conductor to make sure that, over the scale of an entire movement, those crests gradually increase in dynamic level. Heras-Casado conducted Opus 100 with a sure command of this “global” strategy, allowing all of the “local” effects to play out while making sure that the major climax was always reserved for the coda.
Those waves, in turn, are often embedded in machine-like passages. Realizing a tempo with a rigidly-defined pulse, different sections of the orchestra define their own motifs around that pulse. The result is that the entire ensemble is a system of elements and linkages, the perfect metaphor for those complex machines that were so much a testimony to the industrialized Soviet mindset. Between the rigidity of the pulse and the complexity of the components, these machines are practically inhuman; but they are also awe-inspiring. Heras-Casado effectively managed to capture that wondrous quality of mechanical behavior, which is as fundamental to Prokofiev’s rhetoric as is his ear for dissonance.
In such a context one might view the “overture” by Magnus Lindberg as a rhetorical shift from the Machine Age to the Information Age. “EXPO” was composed in 2009 in honor of the launch of Alan Gilbert’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic and received its West Coast premiere this afternoon. This was decidedly a grand occasion; and, as Composer-in-Residence with the Philharmonic, Lindberg brought 21st-century sensibility to that grandeur. This involved honoring past influences, beginning with the whip-crack that Maurice Ravel (one of Lindberg’s favorite composers) used to open his G major piano concerto and visiting examples from Lindberg’s own lifetime, such as the density of a large number of winds playing different lines all in homophony, one of Frank Zappa’s most recognizable gestures. (No, not that kind of gesture.)
The music itself is a bundle of intense energy played out over a mere ten minutes. However, the energy is not that of a massive but intricate machine. Rather, it evokes the light-speed interconnections without which the world the Internet has made could not have come into existence. Thus the music does not so much depict the Information Age (as Prokofiev’s music depicted the Machine Age) as it discloses the primal conditions behind the Information Age. Heras-Casado captured this “spirit” of the Information Age in his interpretation of Lindberg’s score, making “EXPO” very much an overture for the 21st century.
The representative of 19th-century grandeur, on the other hand, was Franz Liszt through his second piano concerto in A major. Stephen Hough was soloist for the occasion. While he was never shy about allowing every one of Liszt’s grand gestures (and there are quite a few of them) to flower, he performed with sensitivity to the context established by the orchestra, always with a keen sense of engagement with Heras-Casado. For those attending Davies regularly this week, this was a refreshing relief from the pianistic bombast experienced over the last two days (although I had to wonder whether all that bombast may have taken its toll on the tuning of Hough’s piano).
Nevertheless, this was clearly the grandeur of another age. While it was executed with all the attention it merits, Hough appreciated that the audience could do with a bit of relief in the wake of Liszt’s spectacle. He thus offered, by way of an encore, Frédéric Chopin’s E-flat major nocturne, the second from the three in his Opus 9. Some may have found Hough’s rhetoric a bit too affected. However, with its three-beat metre (in 12/8 time), there is a certain risk of confusing this nocturne with a waltz; and Hough made it a point to dispel that confusion from anyone in his audience.