Well, they really aren't my classic Russians unless Shostakovich is on the bill, but the San Francisco Symphony's penultimate Summer & the Symphony concert was billed as such and featured a program of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff. Two out of three ain't bad. The main draw for this particular gig was getting another chance to see departing Associate Conductor James Gaffigan do his thing one more time before he departs and moves on to what will likely be a brilliant career.
A couple of side notes before we begin: Gentlemen of all ages- I would encourage those of you trolling around bars and gyms looking for hot women to give that up and just show up at Davies the next time they have a Rachmaninoff piano concerto on the program. Note to SFS marketing dept: please schedule an After Hours program for the all-Rachmaninoff concerts in November.
Also, this was one astute sold-out crowd, especially for a "summer concert." Quiet, and absolutely no clapping heard between movements, unlike at the Beethoven mess a couple of weeks back, the audience for which would have made Emmanuel Ax very happy (not that I'm a snob about that sort of thing). These folks knew what they wanted and what is was about.
The program started off with Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement of Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain. While this isn't a favorite of mine, the witches were very much alive and it was a decent enough amuse bouche. Personally, Prokofiev's "The Knight's Dance" from Romeo and Juliet would have been a way cooler way to open the concert.
Next up was the main attraction for most of the audience, the Rach 2nd, featuring soloist Orion Weiss. This almost-ridiculously romantic concerto, one of the most well-known classical works in popular culture through its prominence in films like Brief Encounter and The Seven Year Itch, as well having it's melody lifted for use in pop tunes and commercials, is fiendishly difficult to do right by because of its familiarity. Thankfully Weiss, Gaffigan and the orchestra gave the audience a measured, careful account which took the piece in a direction that was more cerebral than romantic. It worked surprisingly well.
Playing with an almost surgical precision through the first movement (a metaphor conjured up in no small part by his white dinner jacket that reminded me of a lab coat), Weiss played within the work, not on top of it, to the point listeners had to pay attention to hear him.
The second movement was taken at a slower pace than one would have expected, again lending a controlled restraint to what is often treated as kitsch. Weiss leaned heavily on the pedals for this movement, giving the slower passages a nice touch of angst. He brought a light touch of showiness to the movement while remaining on the right side of the line that falls off the cliff into overt sentimentality.
The third movement gives the pianist the opportunity to really bust out with the flashy fingerwork. Weiss seized this moment to take over, but admirably refused over the top. When it was all over, the audience, which had remained unusually mute through the entire performance, gave him him a hearty standing ovation.
After intermission came Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, featuring Nadya Tichman as the soloist. The piece was performed earlier during the regular season with Charles Dutoit at the podium in a way I found completely disagreeable so I was eager to hear a better account. Even though the summer concerts get much less rehearsal time, this subdued Scheherzade still worked better under Gaffigan than it had during the spring. Tichman always seems a bit reluctant to be the center of attention, which is unfortunate because she's a marvelous musician. Her solos had a tenderness to them but never fully flowered into the score's passion. If there's a piece of classical music that has more sexual tension built into it than Scheherazade, I'm unaware of it. This performance never got beyond PG-13, but at least there wasn't a violence done to it like I witnessed the last time.
Best wishes to James Gaffigan- don't be a stranger, okay?