The last time Alan Gilbert, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, appeared as a guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) was in 2008, when he prepared a program of compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Carl Nielsen, and Steven Stucky. For this week’s series of SFS subscription concerts, Gilbert prepared a sharper differentiation of the time continuum. The “bookends” covered the period of transition from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, beginning with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 93 symphony in F major (the eighth), composed in 1812, and concluding with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/99 symphony in E-flat major, composed in 1793. The “core” of the program, on the other hand, was the only violin concerto composed by Henri Dutilleux and given the subtitle “L’arbre des songes” (the tree of dreams). This concerto was commissioned by Isaac Stern, who gave it its first performance with the SFS in 1988 with Günther Herbig conducting; and it has not been performed by the orchestra since then, until this afternoon. The soloist this time was Renaud Capuçon; and, in what my preview piece called “one of those curious coincidences of history,” Capuçon played the “Panette,” a 1737 Guarneri del Gesù, which previously belonged to Stern.
While this concerto may have been neglected for over two decades, Dutilleux has been putting in at least annual appearances in SFS programs for several recent years. Indeed, his only other concerto, the 1970 cello concerto “Tout un monde lointain” (a whole distant world), was performed last season by Capuçon’s brother Gautier. Those who heard this earlier concerto know that, while the solo instrument was far from neglected, Dutilleux has a keen sense of the overall orchestral sound. One might even say that he approaches a concerto as a dialog between those sonorities that characterize a single instrument and those that emerge in great diversity from the accompanying ensemble.
Dutilleux is particularly meticulous about those latter sonorities. For example, in the violin concerto he states explicitly that the third oboe should double on an oboe d’amore, rather than an English horn. The oboe d’amore is an eighteenth century instrument, given some lovely solo passages by Johann Sebastian Bach; and its pitch range is situated between the oboe and the English horn. Thus the sonorities of its lowest notes apply to pitches higher than those at the bottom of the English horn range; and those who have heard a lot of both instruments can appreciate that the sounds in Dutilleux’ score are not those of an English horn. That may not make a great deal of difference to most of us, but the distinction clearly mattered to Dutilleux himself.
In “L’arbre des songes” the essence of that aforementioned dialog of sonorities appears to reside in the extent to which the melodic lines of the violin solo are set in a context of orchestral textures. In other words the thematic material resides in the solo part, offset by a landscape of relatively subtly expressed and articulated (but richly diverse) “sound effects” (without any pejorative connotation). The “tree” of the title appears to refer to the rich ramifications that establish those textured sonorities. This is not a fractal effect, such as those in the wavelets of Katsushika Hokusai’s color woodcut, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (translated into musical effects so effectively in Claude Debussy’s La Mer); but it entails a similar phenomenon in which a whole emerges that is not readily decomposed into its component parts.
Dutilleux’ rhetoric is not grounded in the grammars of melody, counterpoint, and harmony. It is a rhetoric of what Pierre Schaeffer called “sonorous objects;” and the interplay of voices that we normally associate with a concerto has been replaced by an interplay of such highly contrasted objects. Both Gilbert and Capuçon seemed keenly aware of this rhetorical imperative, and Gilbert was particularly good at honoring all of that scrupulous attention to detail that Dutilleux had put into his instrumentation. The result was a half-hour journey through evolving sonorities, in the course of which we were always aware of Capuçon’s solo role; but it became evident that, as listeners, we would have to “step back” from all of those details to take in those emergent properties that captured the essence of Dutilleux’ expressiveness. Let’s just hope that less than another two decades will elapse before another opportunity to experience this concerto presents itself!
The Beethoven and Haydn symphonies, on the other hand, were all about expression through those nuts and bolts of melody, counterpoint, and harmony. However, both symphonies abound with wit; and it is the sort of wit that comes with maturity, rather than the brashness of youth. The Haydn symphony comes from Haydn’s second visit to England arranged by Johann Peter Salomon during his post-Esterházy period; Beethoven was in his early forties in 1812. Neither composer had to worry about being clever for the sake of attracting attention or garnering popularity. Rather, both symphonies reflect the sort of playfulness that arises when one contemplates fitting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in nonstandard combinations.
Gilbert clearly “got” this quality of wit. It was evident in every phrase he shaped, and the SFS performers were always there to keep up with his interpretations. Thus, while both of these symphonies are often dismissed as being unassuming in the context of more familiar works from their respective canons, each one is definitely a gem unto itself. Gilbert appreciated the value of those two gems; and, in his engagement with SFS, he made sure that we did, too. Thus, while my preview piece suggested that this program would be a sandwich with the “meat” of Dutilleux situated between the “bread and butter” of Beethoven and Haydn, there was no doubting the tastiness of the entire offering!