Hamelin, Robertson Pull Their Punches

United StatesUnited States Carter, Ravel, Gershwin Marc-André Hamelin (piano), San Francisco Symphony, David Robertson (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 24.5.2013 (HS)

Carter: Variations for Orchestra
Ravel: Piano Concerto in D Major for the Left Hand
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Ravel: La Valse

One had high hopes for this one. The brilliant pianist Marc-André Hamelin wields extraordinary technique, so Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand should hold no obstacles for him. And some of his own compositions dip into a jazz vein, so Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue should have been golden. Conductor David Robertson, born in Santa Monica, Calif., and currently music director of the St. Louis Symphony, has long been an exponent of American music, and his energetic conducting style should have paid dividends in a program that featured those works, plus Carter’s Variations for Orchestra and Ravel’s La Valse.

It was not to be, alas. Perhaps the conductor and orchestra never quite recovered from hacking through the thorny patches of the Carter Variations, but for the rest of the concert tempos never felt right, ensemble sounds often failed to jell, on more than one occasion sounding too loud and blaring. Worst, everything felt way too buttoned-up. All of this music requires wild and wanton performance. This one was, in a word, inhibited.

Ravel, with two pieces on the program, fared better than his American friends. Heard in the first of three performances Wednesday in Davies Symphony Hall, Robertson captured the murk and mystery of the opening measures of the concerto as all of the low-lying instruments stir a soup of sound, out of which emerges a sinuous melody. From the piano’s entrance, however, Hamelin seemed to be focusing on crisp execution, which made it sound like a different work. His left-hand technique indeed dazzled, but it had little to do with the shifting colors Robertson was coaxing from the orchestra. As impressive as it was to watch, it was not terribly rewarding to hear.

La Valse, Ravel’s evocative deconstruction of the Viennese waltz and the death of nineteenth-century music, rumbled and groaned appropriately in its opening measures, as Robertson effectively captured that sense of hesitation as the music tries repeatedly to establish a waltz rhythm. But the climax pulled its punches, never conveying Ravel’s sense of everything crashing and burning under its own weight. After that, as nicely as the final wispy measures were played, they couldn’t have the requisite effect.

What did show up well in both of these performances was the amazing range of instrumental color in Ravel’s orchestra writing. That same sense of color, I suspect, is why Carter’s Variations were on the program. There is, I am given to understand, a theme in the crunchy opening measures, but it’s hard to discern amid the crushed-aspirin harmonies. What jumps out of the music, however, is the glee with which Carter tosses the music around the orchestra, finding a wide range of combinations and textures. Solos burst forth with unexpected power. Watching the musicians, though, there was a clear sense not all of them bought into the music, and dissonant mid-twentieth century music never works unless the players believe in it.

Ferdy Grofé’s iconic orchestration of Gershwin’s piano rhapsody teems with color, too, but the inhibitions in the performance started from the top. Principal clarinet Carey Bell’s opening glissando was elegantly articulated, but elegance is not what makes this music work. It needs to feel down and dirty. Principal trumpet Mark Inouye got it better in his solos, but they were so loud in comparison that they felt intrusive rather than funky. From the top, as well, Robertson favored extraordinarily fast tempos. He never let the music breathe. Everything felt rushed. But even as Hamelin gamely kept in step—he has the technique to play this music at breakneck speed—any inherent jazziness was kept at bay. Even the famous big tune (now appropriated by United Airlines) hurried along so blithely it might have been elevator music.

In the end, the rhapsody, like the concerto and the valse, never let loose and expressed what it could. Too inhibited.

Harvey Steiman