This weekend’s program by the San Francisco Symphony was a perfectly constructed symmetrical temple of Claude Debussy. Book-ended by two of his greatest orchestral masterpieces, Jeux and La Mer were played gloriously, stradling a pair of French song sets, sung by one of the finest sopranos of our time, Renée Fleming.
In Jeux the orchestra sounded as good as I have ever heard them. The strings produced a tone that was rich and strong but also capable of vanishing in a split-second. The percussion was crisp with tambourines and cymbals trading barbs with amazingly unified plucks from the strings
La Mer at the end of the program was the perfect companion for Jeux, using the same techniques, but with longer melodic snippets and more lush string lines. The brass were outstanding in the end. I have heard the SFS play this a number of times and this performance was the most exciting. MTT was besides himself, literally bowing down to the orchestra, swaying his torso up and down like a Chassid in prayer. At several points his wind-up to a big cue stretched so far horizontally that he was practically facing the audience. His widely flexible, free-flowing conducting style is perfect for Debussy’s sweeping gestures.
Apparently MTT is a big fan of Robin Holloway-- he had the SFS perform his music several occasions. I still remember his Viola Concerto from 2002, a beautiful piece that soloist Geraldine Walther was very passionate about. I remember being struck by how melodic and gentle it was for a modern piece.
Holloway does a good Debussy impersonation but like all imitations it’s nothing like the real thing. Following to the intricacies of Jeux, where orchestral colors change practically every measure, Holloway took a more restrained approach, transferring Debussy’s accompanimental piano writing to a chosen orchestral color and generally sticking with it for the entire phrase. This is a safe and perfectly acceptable procedure, especially if the arranger doesn’t want to seem over-zealous-- Holloway wanted to leave Debussy intact and also to leave room for the vocal soloist to shine. But in the context of the endlessly varying Jeux and La Mer, Holloway’s orchestration felt stolid and unimaginative and the orchestra seemed less inspired; but perhaps this is what was needed for C’est l’extase, Debussy’s song cycle from 1888.
Fleming did a fine job of carrying the piece, and even benefitted from a slightly subdued orchestra. Her voice was full and dark, with lots of timbral variation and a wide dynamic range. She is capable of blending with the orchestra while still delivering the words clearly, then bursting out of the texture to emphasize a line in the poetry. In lines such as about “languorous ecstasy... the fresh and fragile murmur... purls and whispers” she buried herself in the warm tones of the strings but then on “the sweet cry” her voice suddenly soared and eyes were lifted from following the text in the program. She was able to mesmerize, then snap the dream and elevate to higher, more exciting level of connection. The seven songs passed like a dream-- so fleeting! I would love to hear them again, maybe catch the rebroadcast on KDFC or hope for a recording to be released. The poetry itself was also wonderful.
Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne is a very self-conscious imitation of Renaissance music. Instead of listening to someone play music from the Renaissance, we were listening to a huge modern orchestra play someone’s orchestration of music that was set in a Renaissance idiom. Those extra degrees of separation add an air of artificiality but also add a theatrical dimension that has its own value. Fleming treated this almost like an opera role. Changing into a country-style dress with corset and lace but still very shiny and fancy fabric, even her outfit caught the multi-layered levels of meaning in this piece.
Set in an ancient French dialect with hints of Spanish and Catalan the songs were a throwback to a Europe that was disappearing in the early 20th century and is now all-but gone. The sentimental La Delaissado (The Abandoned) featured a languid English horn solo as an intro to Fleming’s sad song about a shepherdess waiting by the forest for a lover who stands her up.
Malurous qu’o uno fenno (Wretched is the Man with a Wife) was the a Bruegel-like carnal dance-- the most surface-happy number on the whole program. The folk song claims that men are never happy, but women by contrast are happy (hmmm), and concludes the happiest one is she who manages to stay free. Tra de dee, tra la la. Fleming really liked this one, shrieking with glee at the idea.
Baïlèro (Shepherd’s Song) was another another sad ballad, this time about a young man stuck on the other side of the stream. Perhaps that is why he wasn’t able to make their original rendezvous in the first song? The Canteloube selections were presented in a slow-fast-slow structure, the inverse of the usual fast-slow-fast was a moving choice. Although these three songs were the lightest fare in the concert, they were fascinating and different. I have never even heard of this Canteloube before, this collector of French folk songs, and was glad to make his musical acquaintance. His earthly folk songs made Debussy’s wild impressionism that much more enchanting.