Last night in Davies Symphony Hall Stéphane Denève gave the first of three performances as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. His concerto soloist was violinist Nikolaj Znaider. The concerto itself filled the first half of the program. It was Carl Nielsen’s Opus 33 concerto. The work was composed in 1911; but last night was the first time it was performed by SFS and, most likely, the first time it was performed in San Francisco. Even when Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt championed Nielsen’s compositions as SFS Music Director, the violin concerto never found its way into repertoire. (Curiously, Znaider made his SFS debut in November of 2008 with Blomstedt conducting Johannes Brahms’ Opus 77 D major violin concerto. He was Blomstedt’s protégé at the time.)
Past neglect of Nielsen’s violin concerto is more than merely regrettable. He wrote only three concertos, written, respectively, for violin, flute, and clarinet (in the chronological order of their composition). Last year when Dacapo Records released a recording of all three concertos with Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic (and Znaider as soloist in the violin concerto), the accompanying booklet had an essay by Jens Cornelius entitled “I Creep into the Souls of Instruments,” paraphrasing a remark Nielsen made at the age of 60, the time-frame for his flute concerto. That phrase actually applies to far more than his concertos.
There is no reason to assume that Nielsen was ever a student of linguistics. Nevertheless, he seems to have had an instinctive understanding of how prosody impacts the many communicative actions through which human beings engage with each other. As result, one frequently encounters a strong linguistic infrastructure in his music, whether he is writing chamber music (the first movement of the wind quintet is practically a celebration of intimate idle chatter) or large ensemble, in which his attention to individual instrument voices is as important as the resulting blend.
The concerto is in two movements, each in two parts played without interruption (which means that, for all intents and purposes, it follows a conventional four-movement symphonic form). The violin is almost always front and center, beginning the opening Praeludium with a fiery and technically challenging cadenza, making it clear, in Nielsen’s choice of words, just whose soul is being bared. This is but the first of many cadenza opportunities that pervade the entire concerto, giving the solo work a sense of dramatic urgency that is seldom encountered in many other concertos that seem to have been written for mere technical display.
Nevertheless, the violin is far from the only “soul” into which Nielsen has crept. Even when the violin work is at its most intricate, Nielsen’s keen sense of instrumentation finds just the right sonorities to reinforce subtly the violin’s rhetoric. Indeed, Nielsen’s approach to sonorous blends is almost gastronomic in nature, as encountered in the most nuanced cordon bleu creations. At the same time the overall rhetoric is always entirely down-to-earth; and things get just plain folksy in the concluding Allegretto scherzando Rondo.
Throughout the entire concerto Znaider’s execution stood consistently on solid technical ground while also teasing out all the rhetorical gestures necessary to convey the soul of his instrument, so to speak. As conductor, Denève was the perfect partner, balancing the solo work with both the subtleties of individual instruments and the overall blend of the ensemble. One also got the impression that he was aware of many of the thematic tropes that can be found in Nielsen’s six symphonies and could weave their usage into the overall rhetorical framework. The only question was why San Francisco had to wait so long for its first encounter with a concerto so impressive on both technical and expressive grounds.
As might be guessed, Znaider returned for an encore. He first thanked the audience for its “partial standing ovation.” He may still have lingering memories of the San Francisco Performances recital for his San Francisco debut (about half a year before his Davies performance with Blomstedt), which left more than a little to be desired. He had already come a long way with Blomstedt’s assistance and was now clearly forging ahead under his own steam. However, bad memories linger, which may have explained his modesty.
Perhaps he also realized that his encore selection reflected back on his debut recital. He performed the Sarabande movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 D minor partita for solo violin. (He had played all of BWV 1004 at his debut recital.) His approach was quietly nuanced, keeping affectation to a minimum while maintaining focus on the unfolding of Bach’s melodic line.
In the wake of Nielsen’s concerto, it is understandable that the second half of the evening tended towards anticlimax. It began with Guillaume Connesson’s “Une lueur dans l’âge sombre” (a glimmer in the age of darkness), the second piece in the composer’s Trilogie cosmique (cosmic trilogy). The music amounts to a depiction of the darkness of the universe in the wake of the Big Bang. The rhetoric is, for the most part, hushed with considerable attention to sonority. Nevertheless, Connesson is more inclined to work with thematic elements than other “sonorous” composers such as Gérard Grisey or, for that matter, John Luther Adams with his evocation of a vast sonorous landscape in “Become Ocean.” The result was that Connesson’s music could be appreciated at an intellectual level but never reached very far by way of expressiveness.
Equally disappointing was Denève’s own suite of music for Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the ballet Cinderella. Prokofiev was invited to compose this music after the success of his music for Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately, lightning failed to strike a second time. While Romeo and Juliet tended to be built upon a clear sense of the underlying narrative, in Cinderella there was some sense that Prokofiev’s heart was in the ball scene and little else. Unfortunately, Denève decided to account for far more than music composed explicitly for dancing, rather than drama; and the overall flow of his suite bogged down in tedium long before Cinderella had to confront her own chimes at midnight. In the West this ballet never really came into its own until Frederick Ashton composed a version that Winthrop Sargeant once called in The New Yorker a story about two very droll old maids, who happened to have a beautiful stepsister who went to a ball and married a prince. Some sense of Ashton’s wit could have gone a long way to relieving the tedium of Denève’s interpretation.