Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony was led by conductor and pianist Christian Zacharias in a program that coupled the late eighteenth-century classicism of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn with two contrasting American moderns of the twentieth century, Aaron Copland and Morton Feldman. In the first half Copland’s full-orchestra suite from the music he had composed for Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” (originally composed for thirteen solo instruments) preceded Mozart’s K. 466 concerto in D minor, with Zacharias conducting from the piano keyboard. In the second half Haydn’s Hoboken I/93 symphony in D major was introduced by Feldman’s “Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety,” for twelve instruments in a specific spatial array.
This program showed great imagination with abundant opportunities for many diverse approaches to expressiveness. Unfortunately, Zacharias never really seemed to find his comfort zone until the final Haydn selection. Once in that zone, however, he led an ensemble of reduced strings, pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, and trumpets, and timpani in a lively account of what happened when Haydn took his boundless capacity for wit to London. Indeed, the second (Largo cantabile) movement plays with the audience, starting with the coy understatement of a string quartet (violinists Nadya Tichman and Paul Brancato, violist Katie Kadarauch, and cellist Amos Yang), playing with suspense-building hesitations and eventually cutting loose with an intentionally rude noise from the bassoons in their lowest register.
Zacharias’ approach to this symphony was consistently lively and attentive. Conducting without a baton, he effectively engaged his entire body in shaping phrases, controlling Haydn’s sharply contrasting dynamic levels, and making sure that all voices contributing to his contrapuntal fabric were properly heard. This was a performance that delightfully vindicated my favorite aphorism from the “Codetta” of Leonard Slatkin’s Conducting Business book:
You can never conduct enough Haydn or Schubert.
Wit was also evident in “Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety.” This was Feldman’s memorial piece for his piano teacher. It is also one of his shortest compositions, lasting about four minutes. One might say that it is “about” the number 90 (even if his piano teacher actually died at the age of 93, at least according to The New York Times), since the spinal cord of the composition consists of 90 iterations of a falling third motif sounding a bit like a demented cuckoo clock. 81 of those iterations are shared between the two flutes, while the remaining nine are taken by a muted trumpet. Around this spinal cord the other instruments introduce fragmented motifs, perhaps suggesting that life is all about what happens between the utterances of the cuckoo clock.
Zacharias kept his role as a conductor to a minimum, basically overseeing the steady passing of time and the coordination of those motifs emerging around the spinal cord. Most importantly, he seemed to recognize that this particular Feldman score required little more than a straightforward account. By allowing Feldman to speak for himself, Zacharias successfully captured one of that composer’s most intensely expressive compositions.
Unfortunately, the expressiveness of Mozart’s concerto did not fare nearly as well. All too often it seemed as if, when conducting from the keyboard, Zacharias was burdening himself with too many things to do. The result was a performance with a lot of physical activity but little of the churning underlying energy that makes K. 466 such an exciting concerto. Indeed, last night’s account approached the brink of tedium, if not going over it, the last thing you would expect from one of Mozart’s most passionate explorations of the expressiveness of minor-key music.
Even more dissatisfying was the Copland selection. Here I must begin with the disclaimer that I have seen the Graham company perform “Appalachian Spring” many times, both on the stage and in two recordings, an early film and the other a much more recent video produced by PBS. I have always enjoyed how the expressiveness of Copland’s chamber resources aligned so well with the “chamber” resources of Graham’s choreography (four solo dancers and a “chorus” of three young women). As a consequence, I have had little patience with the full-orchestra version, which I find excessively schmaltzy with all the cholesterol-laden implications. Most annoying is the suite’s hypertrophied account of the variations on “Simple Gifts,” which is anything but simple.
In that context, however, I am willing to grant that Zacharias made an honest effort to account for Copland’s score. On the other hand, I rather doubt that he approached this task with any knowledge of Graham’s contribution to the original project. This compares, unsatisfactorily, with, for example, how the ballet music of Sergei Prokofiev, even when extracted into a suite, has the power to evoke memories of William Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet. In last night’s approach to Copland, the result may have been as true as could have been expected to the letter of the score; but any evidence of the spirit behind that letter was sorely lacking.