Music Review: THIBAUDET & SAINT-SAËNS (Fabien Gabel conducting SF Symphony at Davies Hall)

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by Harvey Perr on February 16, 2020

in Music,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


As befits a Valentine’s Day weekend, the San Francisco Symphony whipped up an evening of lush romanticism that was designed to leave its audience swooning. Under the elegant and intensely felt direction of the distinguished French conductor, Fabian Gabel, making a spectacular debut with the SFS, the first half of the evening was devoted to what one might generously call “movie music,” starting with Paul Dukas’ La Péri, his ballet score written for and dedicated to premiere danseuse Natacha Touchanova between 1909 and 1910. Since Dukas wrote before the advent of sound in film, it could be said that it was just such a score that inspired composers who, later, dedicated their lives to writing for the movies. Still, when you consider that Dukas’ most famed work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was immortalized in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, he is as linked to the movies as any classical composer could be. But, of course, his triumph here is that La Péri was written not for film but for ballet, allowing the music to stand lovingly on its own. And indeed it was a sweeping display of melancholy and drama, soulfully performed by the orchestra as guided by Gabel, who seemed so passionately attuned to the music, to its percussive, grandly vulgar crescendos and even more to its ultimate quiet poignancy. It was a lovely way to begin a concert designed to bring us to the brink of romantic longing.

The second piece, Tango Manos Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by Aaron Zigman, commissioned by the Beijing Music Festival, Radio France and the San Francisco Symphony, was making its US premiere, with the marvelously gifted pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet providing the fire and the energy that brought the music to life. But this really was music created by a film composer, and the mighty efforts of Gabel and Thibaudet could not bring it to a higher level. This was not the bandoneon-rich music of Astor Piazzolla, but rather more like background music and, despite its inspired performance, kept drifting aimlessly into a kind of mournful nostalgia, its link to tango primarily in the hands of the musician who had the gentle task of subtly introducing, at moments here and there, the sound of castanets.

It was after intermission that the romantic nature of the evening gained complexity and power and it was with Camille Saint-Saëns’ great Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Opus 78 (also known as the Organ Symphony) that Gabel had his proudest moments. This was about as electrifying an experience as could be imagined. And, with the celebrated organist Jonathan Dimmock playing into the music instead of overwhelming it, it was why one goes to the concert hall instead of listening at home to even a great recording of the same music. Gabel brought to it genuine commitment and even a vibrant sensuality. And the C major chord released by the organ resounded heroically. A pleasant evening ended on a note of grandeur, pure and simple.

photos by Kristen Loken

Thibaudet & Saint-Saëns
San Francisco Symphony
Fabien Gabel, conductor
Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue
ends on February 16, 2020
for tickets, call 415-864-6000 or visit SFS

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