Sunday, February 9, 2014

Music I'm Listening To: Hélène Grimaud with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Lionel Bringuier (February 7, 2014)

I had the pleasure of attending the February 7 San Francisco Symphony concert with guest conductor Lionel Bringuier and pianist Hélène Grimaud. The program opened with Grimaud at the piano to perform the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. After intermission, Bringuier led the Symphony in  Métaboles, by Henri Dutilleux, and then Ravel's La Valse. Bringuier, now associated with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich and formerly with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was entirely new to me. I'd never heard his name before. He took the first movement of the Brahms concerto rather more slowly at first than I'm used to, but not so slowly as to lose the flow of things. Other parts of the performance seemed to be on the verge of getting out of hand. In places, the conductor let the orchestra overwhelm the piano a little, although Grimaud's playing was big--almost brash (although always precise). Still, I enjoyed hearing the concerto, a very familiar composition but one I'd never heard live before, and Mr. Bringuier seemed to have things very much in hand in the second half of the program. Bringuier is one to keep an eye on.

Ms. Grimaud, from what I've read about her, is something of a maverick. I haven't heard enough of her recordings to have a real sense of her style, but on stage she seemed the no-nonsense sort--both in her dress (wearing a simple knitted top in silver and flared satin pants in a warm silvery grey rather than something more flamboyant) and in her approach to the music. The impression she gave was of being simultaneously focused and overflowing with energy. She rewarded a very appreciative audience with an encore, but didn't say what it was. I questioned several ushers and a couple of the musicians on stage during intermission, but no one recognized the piece. One of the bass players suggested it might have been something by Scriabin….

Henri Dutilleux is a fairly obscure composer, but one I've always had a fondness for, mainly because of his Cello Concerto (in part owing to a wonderful old EMI recording I have of it with Rostropovich on the cello, paired with Lutoslawski's concerto for the same instrument). Dutilleux's highly abstract music always seems to reflect a much greater interest in texture, time, and timbre than in melody or harmony. Although the program notes for the concert emphasize his interest in musical structure and forms, I suspect he was motivated in a significant way by the sheer joy of experimenting with sound. He seems to paint with sound. I find it easy to imagine his music in the visual language of someone like Kandinsky. Métaboles was typical in that sense. It was a delight to listen to--to listen to in the way that you listen to sounds like frogs in the night, rain on the roof, waves against the shore, the clicking of a cricket, or the tinkling of a wind chime--with your attention attuned to the quality of the sound as much as to the direction it's going.

The concert ended with what seemed an impeccable rendition of La Valse.

Photo of Mr. Bringuier courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony (uncredited); photo of Hélene Grimaud by Mat Hennek, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon. 

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