Arts & Events

David Robertson Returns to Lead San Francisco Symphony Program

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday June 02, 2018 - 12:32:00 PM

Conductor David Robertson, currently in his valedictory season as Music Director of Saint Louis Symphony and his fifth season as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of Sydney Symphony Orchestra, returned to Davies Hall to lead the San Francisco Symphony in two concerts, Thursday, May 24, and Saturday, May 26. The program featured pianist Kiril Gerstein in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 in B-flat Major, and Engelsflügel by Brett Dean. 

Let me say at the outset that as a conductor David Robertson is a ham. He clearly enjoys putting on a show. Robertson does not so much lead the orchestra as play act the music for the benefit of the audience. At the podium, he leaps, flails, crouches and performs more like an acrobat than an orchestra conductor. He even performed a comedy routine during the third movement Minuet-and-Trio of Haydn’s 102nd Symphony. In order to call the audience’s attention to the way Haydn has the low strings exchange phrases with the violins, Robertson comically swiveled his head first right, then left, then right, then left, and so forth, endlessly. The Davies Hall audience broke out in laughter at these simple-minded antics. As I cautioned back in March when reviewing Pablo Heras-Casado’s podium antics, acting out the music to lead the audience by the nose is a questionable agenda, since a conductor is there, after all, to guide the musicians not the audience. Where demonstrative podium antics are concerned, less is often more. (Once again, take Herbert Blomstedt as an example.) 

At the Saturday concert I attended, Brett Dean’s 2013 work, Engelsflügel, opened the program with a mish-mash of sound effects. Whispering at first, then launching into cascading wind arpeggios, and ending up with funereal brass chorales, Engelsflügel struck me on first hearing as an aimless work, and one that hardly encourages a second hearing. It seemed tacked onto this program largely because Brett Dean’s inspiration, such that it was, for this work came from his study of Brahms’s Opus 119 piano studies. Thus, the assumption must have been that Engelsflügel paired well with Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Alas, this was not the case.  

Next on the program was Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 in B-flat Major. Of all Haydn’s symphonies, this is my flat-out favorite! As the program notes indicated, this symphony highlights Haydn’s central position between the styles of Mozart and Beethoven. There is plenty of Mozart’s nimble playfulness and grace, and there is just enough brooding profundity to suggest the Beethoven-to-come. Indeed, Symphony No. 102 opens with a sustained low note, ominous and brooding, in the winds. Haydn himself later used just such an opening to suggest the primordial chaos in his final work, The Creation. Here the mysterious opening is soon dispelled by an up-tempo (Vivace) theme developed in the violins. (Even this lighthearted theme, however, is developed out of the mysterious opening.) Throughout this extended sonata-form movement, Haydn deploys many surprising elements: startling fortissimo chords, unexpected silences, stop-and-start progressions, rhythmic syncopations, highly contrasting dynamics, and strange dissonances.  

In the Adagio of the 102nd Symphony, Haydn experiments with muted trumpets and timpani, as well as high-pitched bassoons, and a brief but lovely cello solo. In its quiet solemnity, this Adagio is redolent of poignant introspection. The third movement Minuet-and-Trio features the aforementioned repeated exchanges between low strings and high strings, here comically emphasized by conductor David Robertson’s swiveling and lolling head-antics. The Finale features a principal theme that is lively yet restrained. So lively yet restrained, in fact, that Rossini used it in the final act of Il Barbiere di Siviglia for the ladder scene’s music that goes “Ziti, ziti, pian pian piano … dells scala del balcone….” However, Haydn, who never could resist a joke, has his violins seemingly get lost, stutter, and almost come to a halt before he musters the entire orchestra to get everything back on track for a rousing conclusion. Even here, however, Haydn plays another trick. The principal theme is restated emphatically one more time; then a silence ensues. The Davies Hall audience, thinking the symphony was over, broke into applause. But David Robertson whirled on the audience and shushed them, then returned to the brief, slow lead-up to the high-spirited finish. 

After intermission, Kiril Gerstein was soloist in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. At this work’s premiere in 1859 it was hissed and booed. The Hamburg audience found it gloomy, neurotic, and incoherent. Even to this day, some listeners concur in this appraisal. This week’s San Francisco Symphony performance with Kiril Gerstein led by David Robertson certainly did little to alleviate this impression. A drum roll on timpani opens the work, followed by strings that seem to go in many directions at once. The chaos leads to an angry outburst almost at once. Then a melancholy lullaby slows everything down, almost lapsing into silence before the tempo picks up again. Another cataclysmic outburst ensues. Finally, the soloist enters with a vaguely waltz-like tune. Soon the pianist is rehashing everything already heard in the orchestra. Turmoil abounds.  

There is good reason, I suppose, for the turmoil. Brahms was only twenty-five when he wrote this work, and he had just seen his best friend-and-mentor Robert Schumann attempt suicide and be placed in a mental institution. Moreover, young Brahms had quite a crush on his mentor’s wife, Clara Schumann. The second movement of Brahms’s 1st Piano Concerto offers Clara, as Brahms wrote to her, a lovely portrait of herself. Well, what kind of portrait do we hear in the music? It is full of softly introspective music, at times radiant, but lacking in one thing – passion. The Finale is more exuberant, almost giddy at times. It offers opportunities for robust pianistic virtuosity, amply on display here by Kiril Gerstein. But does this ending bring coherence to a work sorely lacking in coherence at its outset. I doubt it. This is the work of a young man, a composer rocked by personal tragedies beyond his capacity to understand. Young Brahms tries his best, and he certainly demonstrates that he has talent. But this First Piano Concerto remains, for me, at least, a testament to turmoil as yet unassimilated or transcended.