Stéphane Denève Recognizes the Sheer Musicality of John Williams

United StatesUnited States Williams, Debussy, and Musorgsky/Stokowski: Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Philadelphia Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 1.5.2016 (BJ)

Williams: Tributes! For Seiji; Cello Concerto
Debussy: from Nocturnes: Nuages and Fêtes
Musorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, arr. and orch. Stokowski
Ravel, Williams, and Beethoven: James Ehnes (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 7.5.2016 (BJ)
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Williams: Violin Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony in A major, Op. 92

John Williams might not be the first name that would come to mind if you were speculating about possible candidates for a two-week mini-festival tribute presented by a major orchestra: it is rather with such titles as Star Wars and E.T. than with the genres of concerto or symphony that the five-time Oscar-winning film music composer, now 84 years old, is most commonly associated. Nevertheless, alongside the film music, he has also produced a healthy output for the concert hall, and has won devoted championship from some highly distinguished performers, including the Philadelphia Orchestra’s talented principal guest conductor, Stéphane Denève, who was apparently the moving spirit behind the planning of these two concerts.

Let me assert at the outset that what Williams writes, whether for the concert hall or for the cinema, is real music, and that is not the truism that it may seem, for there are many practitioners of composing out there who produce what might better be termed mere note-spinning. Whether what he writes may justly be regarded as unmistakably John Williams’s music is a judgement I am not quite so ready to make. It is hard to detect in his work an instantly recognizable personal style, such as one can discern within the first half-dozen measures of works by composers from Handel, Bach, and the Viennese classical masters, to Sibelius, Nielsen, and Strauss, and more recent figures like the late Andrzej Panufnik.

For all that, the sheer musicality of the man and his work is clearly evident, and it made the three works on these programs a pleasure to listen to, especially with the participation of exceptionally gifted soloists, along with stellar playing by the orchestra under Denève’s leadership, to lend allure to the two concertos. In the Cello Concerto, if this is not too paradoxical a way to put it, I felt that there was a wealth of melody coupled with a dearth of tunes. Though the music progressed smoothly and gracefully enough from note to note, those notes rarely coalesced into a pattern striking enough to hold their place—at least, in this listener’s memory once they had been heard. As a consequence, attention could be focused with full concentration on the gorgeous solo playing on offer: Yo-Yo Ma was most definitely in the vein, deploying a technical command that seemed total, and an inexhaustible range of tone from a glistening pianissimo to a warmly saturated forte. Other charismatic cellists may have come and gone, but he remains at the peak of his communicative powers.

The Violin Concerto is, I think, the stronger work of the two. If it has a weakness, it is that the stretches of bravura writing that recur from time to time do not seem to change in shape or mood from one recurrence to the next. But the orchestral part, and the passages where solo and tutti proceed conjointly, are of a more striking character than their counterparts in the cello work. James Ehnes has not been around as long as Yo-Yo Ma, but he is a master of comparable caliber, and he mustered for the concerto an ideal blend of delicacy and fire. Greeted with a standing ovation of more than ordinary enthusiasm, he responded with an encore—the Largo from Bach’s third solo sonata—in his performance of which delicacy reigned supreme.

Much as I enjoyed the two concertos, I think the purely orchestral Tributes! For Seiji is the best work of the three. It amounts to what might be thought of as a sort of miniature concerto for orchestra, and its inventive exploitation of various instrumental groups and their possibilities suggests that it is indeed evocative orchestration—rather than the more structural aspects of music—that constitutes Williams’s strongest creative suit.

The rest of the two programs included agreeable performances of Nuages and Fêtes from Debussy’s Nocturnes, and Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, and one of a piece that I wish had featured Ravel: for Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition Denève had chosen, rather than the familiar Ravel orchestration, the admittedly brilliant but in some ways wrong-headed version by Leopold Stokowski. It rears its wrong head right from the start: where Ravel, alternating solo trumpet with brass ensemble, perfectly depicted the visitor in his walk around the exhibition, Stokowski’s huge, richly saturated, and insistently emotional string scoring had no such individualistic character. Some effective moments aside, the whole work emerged too slow, too loud, and simply too big, and the fault for that must be laid principally at the arranger’s door.

The second of the two weeks ended with a visitor from another musical world. I had thought the day was past when I would encounter a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony shorn of the exposition repeats in the outer movements, but I was wrong. Denève eliminated both of them, with the inevitable damaging effect on the form, though he was relatively generous with repeats in the scherzo (and though, with a program that came in at ten minutes under the two-hour mark, there would have been ample time for their inclusion).

In other respects, however, he led a performance of considerable merit. It was perhaps a shade inflexibly driven at times, but the concomitant advantage was an unusually cogent sense of unity in the progress, especially in a sensibly paced and seamlessly phrased reading of the Allegretto second movement. And the orchestra responded to his conception with some splendid playing, from rich-toned strings and elegant woodwinds (with principal oboe Richard Woodhams and associate principal flute David Cramer outstanding), by way of aptly braying brass, to wonderful work from principal timpani Don Liuzzi, who has been in particularly fine form lately, and who was wielding what sounded like fairly hard sticks with a model of crispness and force that never degenerated into mere brutality.

Bernard Jacobson

Leave a Comment