Edwin Outwater’s is a familiar face in Davies Symphony Hall. Ten years ago he was Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Wattis Foundation Music Director of the SFS Youth Orchestra. Since then he has moved on to become Music Director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, but he has been spending his summers here as Director of Summer Concerts for SFS. Yesterday afternoon he returned to Davies for the first of four concerts in this week’s subscription offering.
To say that he returned with a flourish would be the height of understatement. The major work on his program was his concluding selection, Paul Hindemith’s 1943 “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,” an extraordinary composition that manages to be meticulously brainy and outrageously flamboyant at the same time. Drawing on the fact that one of the themes Hindemith metamorphosed was a march that Weber had composed for Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 play Turandot, Prinzessin von China, Outwater preceded the Hindemith selection with selections from an eight-movement suite that Ferruccio Busoni composed in 1905 (his Opus 41) as incidental music for the commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Gozzi that had inspired Schiller. Finally, to give this music a proper introduction, Outwater turned to Weber to provide the overture at the beginning of the program, the overture he composed for his 1826 opera Oberon.
The program book included a photograph of Hindemith playing the trumpet with a caption explaining that, while Hindemith was a violist, “his proficiencies extended to other instruments as well.” Actually, it is rumored that he could play every instrument in a symphony orchestra; and, given the breadth of instrumentation in the sonatas he wrote, that rumor stands a good chance of being true. His “Symphonic Metamorphosis” goes a long way to reinforcing its veracity.
“Metamorphosis” is not just a playful word selection. Most of the Weber sources were originally composed for four hands on a single piano keyboard. They were polite and diverting little pieces that fit perfectly into a salon setting in the early nineteenth century. Inflating the instrumentation would have been an act of metamorphosis unto itself, but Hindemith went even further with any number of metamorphoses of the themes themselves.
One is outrageously academic: He takes Weber’s march theme for Turandot (which he has been repeating obsessively with instrumentation shifts that recall Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”) and transforms it by having a trombone play it backwards with an unmistakably jazzy twist. This then becomes the subject of a fugue elaborated first by the brass section and then by the rest of the orchestra (eventually including the timpani).
Outwater’s interpretation of this music could not have been more suitable for Hindemith’s playful tone. His very physical disposition on the podium clearly communicated just how much fun this music was, and it was clear that every SFS player was enjoying sharing that fun. Judging by the audience reaction, it was just as clear that those high spirits spilled off the stage and rose to all the levels of seating in the hall itself.
The Busoni selections provided an excellent warm-up for Hindemith’s romp. Busoni’s command of orchestral instruments may not have been as wide-reaching as Hindemith’s, but he certainly had a keen ear for striking sonorities. Rhetorically, it was clear that Busoni was more interested in the barbed sarcasms of Gozzi’s commedia dell’arte than he was in Schiller’s more elevated seriousness (which was probably the real inspiration for the opera that Giacomo Puccini would write at the end of his life). Three of the movements that Outwater selected were marches, and each had its own warped way of distorting the idea that a march was some form of disciplined movement. The real kicker, however, comes in the movement that depicts Turandot’s chamber.
This probably served to introduce a scene in which Turandot was being serenaded before the dialogue of the text begins. For some reason that may be forever unknown, Busoni got it into his head that she should be serenaded with “Greensleeves.” (What else would be a appropriate for a Chinese princess in an Italian commedia dell’arte?) All the performers on stage seemed to enjoy the joke, but no chuckles could be heard on audience side.
Weber’s own music received crisp and attentive treatment from Outwater. He knew exactly how to endow each phrase with its proper rhetorical shape. This was a time when overtures did not receive much attention, since there was too much interference from latecomers taking their seats. Outwater performed it as if it were more important than the Oberon opera itself. Given how little that opera is performed, he definitely had the right idea.
The concerto soloist for the program was pianist Stephen Hough, performing Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 103 (fifth) concerto in F major. Saint-Saëns composed this piece in 1896 while visiting the archaeological ruins of Luxor in Egypt; and it is now known as the “Egyptian” concerto, even if the Egyptian references are a bit sparse. Most striking is the parallel motion at the fifth above the octave, the interval between the fundamental and the third harmonic.
Primarily, though, this is a collection of affable themes and extensive piano virtuosity. Sadly, Hough seemed to be rushing his way through too many of those virtuoso riffs, thus degrading their intention as effusive elaboration to a mere blur. More problematic, however, was that Hough never seemed to have command of the middle range of his dynamics. His forte passages could roar with ferocity, and his piano passages often bordered on the inaudible. Unfortunately, he never quite knew what the to with all the stuff between those extremes. That left it to Outwater to fill in those gaps with melodic contributions from the orchestra, often reinforced by Saint-Saëns’ own skills at instrumentation.
Hough took an encore to reinforce his pianissimo talents. This was his arrangement of the “Crépuscule” (twilight) movement from the song cycle Poème pastoral by Jules Massenet. His verbal introduction for this selection was barely audible, but it sounded as if this was music he first started playing in prep school. There is a naïve simplicity to the rhetoric (of the arrangement and probably of the original music as well); but Hough certainly knew how to milk that naïveté for all of its rhetorical worth.