Luisotti and an Italian Showman in a Nino Rota Rarity

United StatesUnited States Puccini, Rota, Brahms: Giuseppe Albanese (piano), San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Cal Performances (co-presenter), Nicola Luisotti (conductor), Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley. 17.5.2013 (HS)

Puccini: Capriccio Sinfonico
Rota: Piano Concerto in C major
Brahms: Symphony No. 3 in F major

In their rare concerts it’s nice to see the faces of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, not just the tops of the heads as they hide in the pit at the opera house. Arrayed across the stage in Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley (the evening was co-presented by Cal Performances), they responded with intensity to the vigorous conducting of their music director, Nicola Luisotti, in a program that only tangentially nudged the opera world.

Puccini opened the proceedings, not with an excerpt from one of his familiar operas but with his Capriccio Sinfonico, the last work he ever wrote just for orchestra. He penned the piece for his graduation exercise at the Milan Conservatory. It doesn’t take a sharp ear to realize he later lifted the Allegro section as the opening music for La Bohème, and Puccini scholars may note how a second theme later appeared in the seldom-performed opera Edgar. That doesn’t detract from the charm of the music. If Luisotti let the broad opening pages bloat into something almost Wagnerian, the appearance of the “Bohème” music found a more Puccini-esque footing.

Nino Rota did compose several operas but he is best known for writing the scores that so effectively enriched Federico Fellini’s films. The urgency and scene painting of movie music is easy to find in the scurrying passages that gallop through his Piano Concerto in C Major, given a rollicking performance by the tousle-haired Italian artist Giuseppe Albanese. A showman himself, Albanese was not averse from milking the spotlight at every turn. He executed left-hand crossover accents with extra flourishes that brought to mind the finger-pointing comic turns of Chico Marx on film, and when he had a free hand he virtually conducted himself with the other.

All that would have mattered little if he weren’t able to draw the joy and finesse that he did from this music. The repertory does not exactly burst with great examples of piano concertos written by Italian composers, so it’s pointless to compare Rota’s to others. The composer relished the spinning-out of a long melody, even if most of them in this piece are running sprints rather than dancing expressively. Harmonically, the piece hews to a late-Romantic palette, although Rota used Prokofiev-like enharmonic shifts effectively (and humorously, layering on one or two more than the Russian composer might). There is plenty of opportunity for brilliant solo playing—so much so that Albanese raced back on stage to perform the final breathless page again as an encore.

He wasn’t done, though. As if to prove he could do more than show off, his second encore of Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand (op. 9 no. 2) followed with warmth and real elegance. For a final encore, he hammed it up with Earl Wild’s over-the-top Liberace-like arrangement of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Clearly Albanese has some serious ability. It will be interesting to see what sort of career he can meld from his showmanship and, as demonstrated by the Scriabin, serious music-making.

If anything Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 is the polar opposite of the theatrical music in the first half. Its finely etched themes and clarity of form demand a bit more precision in execution and lucidity in the orchestral texture than Luisotti and the orchestra achieved. Critical details kept getting swallowed up in the robust sound. Perhaps the greater resonance in Zellerbach Hall muddied the sonics for an orchestra more accustomed to the relatively dry acoustic of the opera house in San Francisco.

There’s no denying that the power of the overall structure came through, however. Each movement begins with a strong statement, rises to climaxes, and subsides gently at the finish. This is something an opera orchestra should be pretty good at achieving, and Luisotti and his crew did this well.

Harvey Steiman