Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Spectacular vision of the end of days


Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit appeared with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo:SFS
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Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit has been a citizen of the world for most of his life, managing to make long musical partnerships with cities in Canada, England and the US. He is still a frequent flyer who regularly guests with the San Francisco Symphony. Dutoit's recent fortnight of appearances at Davies Symphony Hall was a good example of his forthright musical approach and his well-established rapport with the Orchestra.

He needed strong mutual understanding if his leadership of the massive Berlioz Requiem was to succeed. Postponed from a previous visit, this was finally an opportunity to hear top-flight musicians under Dutoit's control in a work he has famously recorded with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (he was Music Director for decades before a bitter parting). It was alleged he was too tough and condescending with the musicians, but that was then, and this is now. If his podium technique remains overbearing, you can bet the SFS players would let him know about it. With a work as huge as the Requiem, an alert and focused traffic cop is simply de rigueur .

And Berlioz needs an advocate who can not only manage the troops, but also fashion a convincing interpretation. The Requiem, Opus 5, is a thrilling vision of the end of days. Verdi scares us, Mozart and Faure offer some consolation, but Berlioz pulls all the stops out for a musical spectacular featuring brass stationed throughout the hall, a lone tenor soloist and massed choruses, all supported by an augmented orchestra.

It is the apocalypse as adventure story, and Dutoit, already known for his mastery of Berlioz, clearly meant to highlight every component of the score while fashioning a cohesive listening experience. It was a smart but often surprisingly soft-edged approach that marshaled the forces through the 80-minute work with efficiency and intermittent drama, but little emotional commitment.

Ragnar Bohlin's SFS Chorus covered themselves with glory as expected, and the Young Women's Choral Projects of San Francisco (Susan McMane, director) and Golden Gate Men's Chorus (Joseph Piazza, director) added grandeur to the overwhelming experience.

Tenor Paul Groves appeared as soloist (hey, no pressure there), and his contribution was clear and appropriately strong, if a bit effortful. The brass ensembles throughout DSH (how did they get some of them up so high above the Terrace?) were a majestic presence, and it was fun picking out individual faces. The rest of the Orchestra, notably the strings, could be easily heard, too, thanks to Dutoit's carefulness. If DSH were more reverberant, the overall results might have been more inspiring, but the enthusiastic standing ovation was deserved.

Last week Dutoit returned for a varied program comprised of national composers representing countries still part of the European Union. It was probably scheduled well before Brexit, but it lent the musical patchwork a unifying theme.

Sibelius (yes, Finland is an EU member) contributed the first SFS performances of the catchy Karelia Suite (1893); Falla's fiery Spanish soul was represented with Three Dances from The Three-Cornered Hat; and Mozart's Viennese premiere in 1785, Piano Concerto No. 22, spotlighted an exquisite performance by noted interpreter Emanuel Ax.

The really big finale was French composer Claude Debussy's La Mer (1905). Dutoit's strength matched the composer's vision of the sea as mighty monster. The SFS musicians were ready, willing and able to follow his exciting lead.

Other eminent guest conductors will be appearing at DSH through the end of May. Roberto Abbado will lead performances of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3, Scottish, this week with violinist Veronika Eberle joining him in the beautiful Schumann Concerto.

Conductor Manfred Honeck partners with baritone Matthias Goerne for Shostakovich's Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, rounding the program off with Tchaikovsky's stirring Fifth Symphony.


Just 100 & still vital

Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison-Gamelan Masterpieces will continue Other Minds' memorial celebration of beloved gay composer Lou Harrison's centennial with a performance that includes his gorgeous choral masterwork La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra, in Esperanto), for large mixed chorus, American Gamelan, organ and harp, conducted by Nicole Paiement (Opera Parallele Artistic Director, Conductor and Founder). Curated by Other Minds Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian, the concert on Sat., May 20, at Mission Dolores Basilica, 7:30 p.m., promises an exciting evening spent with friends and devotees of the late lamented, but happily feted Harrison. Info:


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