Arts & Events

No Local Atmosphere Needed for Gautier Capuçon

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday May 12, 2018 - 05:47:00 PM

In a San Francisco Symphony program chock full of post card evocations of Mediterranean land-and-sea-scapes, the best music, the Cello Concert No. 1 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saens, offered nothing in the way of local color but everything in what counts most – beautiful music. Cellist Gautier Capuçon was in top form here, spinning out the lovely melodies of Saint-Saens with his burnished low register, and reaching up into the utmost heights of the cello’s register for the occasional stratospheric notes. Both sides of Capuçon’s expressive capabilities were on display here – the robustly physical attack and the delicately refined nuances. All told, guest conductor Stéphane Denève had little to do in this work aside from allowing Gautier Capuçon to have his way, a strategy that ensured success. Likewise, Capucon’s encore, the Swan, from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, was an exquisite gem that highlighted this cellist’s magical touch. 

More challenging, perhaps, was the work that opened the program – Escales by Jacques Ibert. Astonishingly, this fine work had only been performed once before by the San Francisco Symphony – in 1946 under Pierre Monteux. Composed by Ibert as a series of impressionist encounters with Mediterranean sites visited on his honeymoon cruise, Escales offers musical evocations of, first, a voyage by ship from Rome to Palermo, Sicily, then a port of call in Tunis and Tunisia’s interior, and, finally, a visit to Valencia, Spain. Composed in 1922, Escales offers the best of French impressionist scene-painting in music, a feature it shares with Debussy’s Iberia, Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole, and Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. In this work, conductor Stephane Deneve, adroitly led the orchestra through the choppy waters of the opening voyage to Sicily, then captured the local color of Tunisia’s camel caravans and snake-charmers, highlighted with a very evocative oboe solo by Eugene Izotov, and, finally, led the orchestra in a rousing evocation of Valencia, Spain, complete with castanets. In a work that might easily fall into the trap of clichés, Ibert’s Escales beautifully navigates the waters in ways that never fail to exercise their musical appeal. This is a work of superb construction, sensitive orchestration, and wonderfully varying textures and colors. Escales is surely a work that deserves to be heard more frequently. 

After intermission, what ensued in the second half of this program was far less compelling. A 2015 composition by French composer Guillaume Connesson, 

E chiaro nelle valle il fiume/The river is clear in the valley, was redolent of movie music. Post-romantic in style, it starts out as yet another bit of landscape-painting in music. Thus, it fits this concert’s thematic program. But in the worst movie music tradition it soon lurches into Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza territory, ending with a syrupy and overly loud crescendo of empty gesturing. 

The final work in this program was Ottorino Respighi’s 1924 work, Pines of Rome. This musical evocation of Rome has its moments, but it is fatally flawed by the final of its four musical moments, which I’ll get to in a moment. Prior to that, Pines of Rome offers a lively, if hectic, evocation of children scampering in the groves of the Villa Borghese, a somber evocation of the Roman catacombs, and a lovely bit of night music complete with a recording of a nightingale’s song. Pines of Rome’s final segment features a march theme that builds inexorably and rather stridently as a tribute to Italian militarism from Roman times to Mussolini. It is both aggressive and abrasive. Somehow, this combination of effects cheapened, for me, at least, the overall impression I gathered of guest conductor Stéphane Denève. If you’re going to program works that musically evoke specific places and times, why finish with a paean to militarism, both Roman and Fascist? Neither musically nor thematically is this a heart-warming , endearing way to conclude a concert.