Thursday, February 02, 2017
The Return of James Gaffigan at the SF Symphony
After the Women's March two Saturdays ago, we went to Davies Hall to hear guest conductor James Gaffigan lead the San Francisco Symphony. Gaffigan was the associate conductor of the orchestra from 2006 and 2009 before launching an international career based mostly out of Europe. I was a big fan when he was the associate, particularly in his handling of Mozart with the SF Symphony, so I went into the Saturday concert with high hopes which were met and exceeded in a marvelous range of Russian and Austrian music.
The concert started with Mussorgsky's original orchestration for A Night on Bald Mountain from 1867. I like most of Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestrations of Mussorgsky's music, which are big and plush and smooth, but the composer's originals are generally weirder, starker, and more interesting. This newly rediscovered version, published for the first time in 1968, was no exception. The orchestra gave a rich, colorful performance of familiar music that sounded brand new.
This was followed by Prokofiev's 1935 Violin Concerto No. 2, written while he was bouncing around from the U.S. to France to Russia and elsewhere around the globe. Even though I know and love much of Prokofiev's music, this is a major piece I had somehow never heard before, and it has become an instant favorite. Listening to different versions on YouTube (the favorite was an old recording with violinist David Oistrakh, pictured above playing chess with Prokofiev), the piece became an enchanting earworm. After a brilliant first movement, the Andante revolves around one of the sweetest, simplest melodies Prokofiev ever wrote, and the final movement is a demonic corker with motoric, dissonant thrusts of the violin embroidered with castanets, in a nod to Madrid where the concerto premiered.
The young Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma above was the soloist, and the performance was as good or better as any of the recorded versions on YouTube, not to mention that hearing this live makes all the difference. Balancing Prokofiev's competing rhythms between soloist and orchestra in this concerto is a tricky business, and Gaffigan got it just right.
After intermission, the orchestra performed Mozart's Symphony No. 36, which the composer whipped out on commission in four days. It's odd how many conductors go astray with Mozart but Gaffigan seems to have an instinctive affinity for his music, and the musicians responded with a lively performance.
The real surprise of the concert was the finale, the Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss's opera, Salome. I have never heard the huge orchestra sound this good with the music of Strauss, with a clarity that sounded like Christian Thielemann conducting Elektra at the SF Opera in the early 1990s. If Gaffigan can make an overplayed pops piece like the Dance of the Seven Veils sound this magnificent, imagine what he could do with a whole opera. Please, San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera, invite him back.