Friday, November 2, 2012

Music I'm Listening to: The San Francisco Symphony with Asher Fisch and David Fray

I attended the October 26 performance of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. On the program were Wagner's Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22, and Brahms's Symphony No. 4. Jaap Van Zweden was to have been the guest conductor, but he cancelled for some reason. Asher Fisch conducted in his place. David Fray was the soloist in the Mozart concerto. Both Asher Fisch and David Fray were new names to me. Fisch appears to have conducted a lot of opera. He is Principal Guest Conductor of the Seattle Opera, but he will take over as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the West Australia Symphony in September 2013. Fray studied at the National Superior Conservatory of Music, in Paris. He made his professional debut with the Cleveland Orchestra, in 2009. He records for Virgin Classics.

I didn't know what to expect from conductor Fisch, but I must say I enjoyed the entire concert--even the Wagner, and Wagner is not usually to my taste. I thought the scintillating, overlapping opening section especially well done. The Mozart was enjoyable--perhaps a bit too "correct"--but fun nonetheless. My main complaint about Mr. Fray's playing (besides a hint of muddiness here and there in some of the faster, more intricate passages, mostly in the first movement) was a certain disconnectedness. It seemed as if he were analyzing the music rather than playing it--if that makes sense. He was, in fact, playing, of course, and the second movement was handled very well, I thought.

I find it hard not to comment of Mr. Fray's overall demeanor. He plays rather slouched at the piano and he likes to throw his hands off to the side of the keyboard at the end of a loud passage as if to say "take that!" Although he looked mild-mannered relative to some pianists (Melvyn Tan comes to mind), his exaggerated gestures were a bit much. Most of the time, his brow was furrowed and he appeared to be scowling. He gave me the impression of being angry at the keyboard for some reason--as if the keys had just insulted his mother and he wasn't going to stand for it. It all got a bit annoying. I listened to much of the performance with my eyes closed because to watch him play was distracting.

Having said all that, I think Fray is a good pianist. He has a strong left hand and seems to like to emphasize the rhythms of the harmonies behind the main melodic lines of the music. I immediately thought to myself that he's probably an excellent interpreter of Schubert and I imagined he'd play the Impromptus and the Moments Musicaux well, in particular. I was delighted to see at intermission that he has recently recorded these and that he'd be signing CDs after the performance. At home the following day, I listened to the Schubert recording I purchased for an autograph, and I wasn't disappointed. There are idiosyncratic passages--a few fleeting descents into bombast--but otherwise very enjoyable. Mr. Fray is, indeed, an interesting interpreter of Schubert and one that I hope will grow. I look forward to following this young man's career. Perhaps he will begin recording the Schubert sonatas before too long. I hope he'll be back in San Francisco soon.

I thought Fisch's interpretation of the Brahms symphony excellent and the playing mostly perfect. I had a few nits to pick, lined up in my head as I listened, but at this remove I can't remember what they were--which is to say they were probably trivial. I do remember thinking that the conductor rushed the fourth movement just a little, but otherwise, the piece was very nicely done--lush, emotionally invested, but not overdone. The horn section was a standout and the long pizzicato passages were handled by the strings with conviction. I was a little apprehensive at first about the change in conductors, but I'd be very happy to see Asher Fisch leading in San Francisco again. I hope he returns sooner rather than later.

The highlight of a quick meal after the concert at Absinthe (besides the lovely Kimberly at reception making quite a statement in a bright red shirt set off by a wide back belt) was encountering a new wine grape called Pellaverga Bianco, which had a wonderfully smokey character to it (at least in the wine I enjoyed). This is a grape to explore further. It appears to be confined to the Piedmont region of Italy.

Photo of David Fray courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

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