Arts & Events

Some Notes on two Cal Performances Concerts: Kent Nagano Conducting the Montréal Symphony with Pianist Daniil Trifonov & Gil Shaham Playing Bach's Six Violin Solo Works

Ken Bullock
Friday April 22, 2016 - 04:44:00 PM

Kent Nagano Conducting Montréal Symphony; Daniil Trifonov, solo pianist

Kent Nagano's return to the podium in Zellerbach Auditorium, leading the Montréal Symphony, which he's directed since 2006, was an evening of standing ovations, encores and nostalgia by many in the audience for the 30 years Nagano directed Berkeley Symphony, bringing it national and world recognition. 

But not all were happy with the program of Debussy's ballet music 'Jeux,' Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto--with the remarkable Daniil Trifonov as soloist--and Stravinsky's seminal modernist ballet, 'The Rite of Spring.' 

In a mixed, but at times sympathetic Chronicle review under the headline "Nagano and Montreal Save the Best for Last," Joshua Kosman remarked that the concert was "an evening where the finest rewards came during the encores," that the orchestra was "beset by inconsistency," on one hand rendering their encore of Debussy's 'Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun' in a fashion that would be "the envy of many a more eminent ensemble" ('The Prelude' was featured along with Stravinsky's 'Firebird' for the tour concert in Los Angeles), whereas Debussy's later 'Jeux' was "beguiling but interpretively glib," Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto performed in a "ferocious but charmless" manner with soloist Daniil Trifonov squandering his "formidable keyboard virtuosity" in "wearying, brutalist fashion," while putting "his formidable keyboard virtuosity to better use" in his encore of the Rachmaninoff arrangement of the Preludio of Bach's E-minor Violin Partita. 

Of 'Rite of Spring,' Kosman remarked on "a general air of bluster ... although some of the big banks of orchestral sound made an impressive effect." The orchestra's "more traditional sort of encore" of the Farandole from Bizet's 'L'Arlesienne' was found to be "mustering a degree of incisive clarity that had been largely absent up to that point," "the main body of programming delivering without grievous mishap ... two hours of unexciting, blandly capable orchestral playing." 

There are a few critical insights to Kosman's review, but the program as a whole worked for the audience in other ways than pure nostalgia over Nagano's return or merely in the encores, which were brilliant in themselves. 

The leap in programming between the brilliant late work of Debussy--'Jeux' is his last completed orchestral work and his only ballet, inscribed "poeme danse' " (and the composer hated Nijinsky's choreography, "indulging in a peculiar kind of mathematics," enough to leave his box at the premiere to smoke a cigarette during his piece)--and the Russian complement of the program was inspired, bringing on Prokofiev's 1921 Third Piano Concerto before proceeding to the monumental 'Rite' that dazed and dazzled Paris a few weeks after 'Jeux' was received quietly in 1913--the year Prokofiev began the sketches which culminated in his Concerto and also when Debussy commented "the Russians have opened up a window in our somber schoolroom where a strict master presides, through which we may catch a glimpse of countryside." 

The landscape glimpsed in the Concerto is the internal one of contrast, quick humor and shifts in mood and idea, with different sides of the same material quickly played out ... Pierre Boulez said of 'Jeux' that it was "the arrival of a kind of music which, renewing itself from moment to moment, implies a similarly simultaneous mode of perception." The mode of perception apparent in Prokofiev's music is characterized by his old friend Rostropovich: "Listening to his music I'm always reminded of his conversation: witty, candid, at times brusque, but always gentle." 

Maybe Trifonov emphasized the brusque to the detriment of the gentle, although "ferocious" is a bit much, more like "fantastic" to emphasize his speed and power at the keyboard--as another friend of the composer once remarked, Prokofiev's virtuoso playing was hard to take in a small room--more like the theatrical humor and grotesquerie of the automatons in Offenbach, a "Ballet Mechanique," as a musician friend whispered to me during Trifonov's playing of Prokofiev, and inspired again in Trifonov's choice of Rachmaninoff's arrangement of Bach for encore, Rachmaninoff being the Romantic choice of the America where Prokofiev landed (in San Francisco from Japan) in 1921 to premiere his Concerto in Chicago to lukewarm audience and critical response. 

"Let the maestro be calm," Prokofiev advised Koussevitzky before a concert, "This is not a Stravinsky score. There are no complex meters, no dirty tricks." 'The Rite' is notorious for its tumultuous reception, though anyone familiar with the riotous history of Parisian performing arts openings, from the Jeune France demonstration for the playwright at the premiere of Victor Hugo's 'Hernani' in 1830 to the Cadets' smoke-bombing of Genet's 'The Screens' in 1964 wouldn't see the fuss as so unusual after all, more like local color. As one of Diaghilev's dancers noted, the spectators came prepared to riot. 

Nagano's interpretation of 'The Rite' with Montreal Symphony emphasized something, at least in the first part, that's been lost in the endless dilutions and imitations of 'Rite' in movie music and elsewhere, a kind of dynamic, energizing stridency, a touch of exquisite pain--but as Raam Pandeya once said of poetry, that scratching of fingernails on a grimey windowpane that cannot be forgotten, something disturbing yet addictive--which restores a sense of the ferment in the listeners of the time. My musician friend and I, comparing notes after the concert, had come up with the same thought during the performance--and others have spoken of it since. 

The precision, as Kosman noted, of the encores was a wonderful backtrack into the realm French modern came from, Nietzche's favorite over Wagner in Bizet's kind of energetic sublime and Debussy's brilliant, languorous evocation of Mallarme' 's great poem, a very satisfying end to an evening's program both ambitious and intriguing in its scope. 

Gil Shaham Playing Bach's Six Violin Solo Pieces 

After poet George Oppen died in 1984, this fragment was found in the study of his San Francisco home: "Bach--the B minor Mass!/I wept because it says/everything that can/ever be said." 

The three sonatas and three partitas that comprise Bach's compositions for solo violin obviously cannot have the amplitude or depth of his greatest masses and other great orchestral and choral works. 

But an extraordinary, pointed specificity, a greatness in camera, as microcosm, a sense of completeness, breadth and depth of expression on the European instrument perhaps best-known for its expressiveness, has long been associated with these six pieces. And Gil Shaham's playing of them all--something he's long delayed, after studying and playing them privately or singly in public for a decade or more ("My basic technique has changed three times because of this music ... I've found myself questioning everything.")--gave the audience at Zellerbach a very direct sense of that completeness--a kind of perfection in the face of mortality--which marks Bach's greatest work, his signature. 

It was a particular treat to hear Shaham play these intricate, difficult pieces--difficult and intricate both technically and in interpretation--not long after hearing the Montréal Symphony, led by Kent Nagano (as discussed above) perform Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major with another brilliant and driven soloist, Daniil Trifonov, while remembering Shaham's magnificent rendering of Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto with the St. Louis Symphony led by his brother-in-law, David Robertson, at Davies a few years back--and Trifonov's marvelous encore at Zellerbach of Rachmaninoff's arrangement of the Preludio to Bach's E Major Paritita, with which Shaham began the concluding piece in his program, displaying unusual brilliance, bringing it back home from the glories of lush chromatic orchestration to its original spareness, its solitary glory on four strings. 

I have to agree with James MacBean's appraisal in last week's Planet: the video images by David Michalek, even at their most intriguing (as James pointed out, the single figures and couples dancing in super slow motion), distracted from the necessary attention required from the listener for the intensity and depth of Bach's masterworks, especially with such a brilliant, at times seemingly effortless, interpretation of these supremely difficult works by Shaham, who was courtly in his acknowledgment of the enthusiastic applause during the internal pauses between movements--another occasional distraction--nodding, even bowing quickly before resuming. 

The response of the audience indicated how glorious the encounter was for each listener with these unsurpassed masterpieces, rendered by a virtuoso, a unique player.