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

A Royal visit to Davies Hall


The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in front of the Royal Albert Hall in London. Photo: Courtesy RPO
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In the wake of artistic director and principal conductor Charles Dutoit's departure due to allegations of sexual misconduct, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra still managed to embark on a planned six-concert West Coast tour of the United States last month. They docked recently in San Francisco at Davies Symphony Hall with another Swiss conductor, Thierry Fischer, at the helm.

They may have been bringing coals to Newcastle, considering Northern California's own highly prized symphonic organizations, but the RPO is used to heavy competition. Coming from spoiled-for-choice London (three other major orchestras performing regularly), the RPO has survived for over 70 years with tours of more musically deprived areas of the UK, a yearly season of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall (home of the legendary "Proms"), Cadogan Hall and Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall. International tours, recordings, film and TV work, and community and education projects also keep the RPO viable, maintaining the legacy of beloved founder Sir Thomas Beecham.

Then there are those symphonic pop-rock albums to help pay the bills. Who can so easily dismiss "ABBAphonic," "Symphonic Queen" or "The Wonder of You: Elvis Presley with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra?"

Good-natured ribbing aside, Beecham's taste for grand and vibrant presentations has obviously survived decades of changing tastes. At least, the disgraced latest leader of the RPO has left a band of ready, steady and seasoned musicians for Thierry Fischer to promenade with.

Fischer, who is music director of the Utah Symphony, has shown a personal taste for orchestral richness and dynamic contrasts, less like Dutoit's precise elegance, but perhaps closer to Beecham's famously lavish sound. His Reference Recordings HDCD of Mahler's mighty Eighth, with the Utah Symphony and Mormon Tabernacle Choir, doesn't have much new to say, but still proves an overwhelmingly grand and beautiful listening experience.

Fischer hasn't just kept his eye on the past either, commissioning exciting world premiere works for Utah, including queer composers Nico Muhly and Andrew Norman, which can be sampled on another live recording HDCD, "Dawn to Dust."

Coming to San Francisco with the RPO for two concerts in the Great Performers Series, Fischer made his stamp on repertory that must have been chosen well before his hiring. He also showed sympathetic support for some starry guest artists, in personalized renditions of two wildly contrasted concertos. French artists, cellist Gautier Capucon and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, are no strangers to DSH. They each took the spotlight with predictably expert performances, of Haydn's briskly witty Cello Concerto No. 1 and Liszt's borderline-pompous Concerto No. 2 in A Major for Piano and Orchestra.

Fischer seemed more in tune with Thibaudet's broad strokes, but he also kept pace with Capucon's remarkably strong technique. It was catnip for the enthusiastic crowd, and the lighter selections on each concert also earned cheers, not unlike a lively "Proms."

The big news on each bill were complete readings of Stravinsky story ballets "The Firebird" (1910) and "Petrushka" (1911). Fischer fared better with the latter, where his penchant for extremes of soft and loud playing seemed less prominent. The full-length "Firebird" seemed, ironically, more fragmented than the more frequently performed Suite, but the purposely divided segments of "Petrushka" were dramatically thrilling, especially the big and chaotic public scenes.

The RPO musicians kept the energy at a high level for two nights of strenuous playing with a real sense of enjoyment, and I came away feeling a shared sense of fun. Whether Fischer will become a permanent replacement for Dutoit is anybody's guess. He certainly deserves to maintain Principal Guest Conductor status like Pinchas Zukerman, with close to 10 years of partnership.


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