The San Francisco Symphony welcomes guest conductor, Charles Dutoit, this week and next, for a two-program series of concerts, the first of which features the music of Ravel, Lalo and Elgar, with violinist, James Ehnes as soloist. In the second program, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus will perform Poulenc’s ‘Stabat Mater’ and the Berlioz ‘Te Deum’ in a concert which will also feature soprano Erin Wall, tenor Paul Groves and the Pacific Boychoir, directed by Kevin Fox.
Since 1959, when Charles Dutoit made his debut as a professional conductor, he has appeared in almost every major concert hall across the globe, and led most of the major orchestras in the United States, Europe, Japan, South America and Australia. His first appearance at Davies Symphony Hall was with the Montreal Symphony in 1981, and with the San Francisco Symphony in 1985. He has made return visits – as part of the Symphony’s Great Performers Series – with the Pittsburgh Symphony, l’Orchestre National de France, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Maestro Dutoit is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Music Director Emeritus of the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo. Between 1990 and 2010, he was Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the summer concert series at the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Saratoga Festival of the Performing Arts, and – having recently celebrated 30 years of artistic collaboration with the Philadelphia – has recently been appointed Conductor Laureate.
This week’s concert opens with Ravel’s ‘Rapsodie espagnole’, composed in 1907. Maurice Ravel had no formal links with Spain – other than through his Basque mother, and the fact that he’d been born near Biarritz, close to the Spanish border. Nevertheless, the rhapsody reflects his mother’s great passion for the country, which she imparted to her son through its folk songs, which she sang to him.
Edouard Lalo wrote his ‘Symphonie espagnole’ in 1874, for the Spanish violinist, Pablo de Sarasate. Lalo was in his mid-fifties before he gained any recognition for his work and it was de Sarasate who was responsible for his eventual fame, supportive as he was of Lalo’s Violin Concerto in F minor, and the ‘Symphonie espagnole’ which he premiered in Paris on February 7, 1875.
Guest soloist in the ‘Symphonie espagnole’ is Canadian violinist, James Ehnes, who made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony in 2003, and most recently appeared here in 2010. Recipient of the first Ivan Galamian Memorial Award, he was also awarded the Canada Council for the Arts Virginia Parker Prize, and a 2005 Avery Fisher Career Grant. He has an honorary doctorate from Brandon University, and in 2010 was the youngest person ever elected Fellow to the Royal Society of Canada, the same year in which he was appointed Member of the Order of Canada.
Mr Ehnes plays the ‘Ex Marsick’ Stradivarius of 1715, on extended loan from the Fulton Collection. In this current season, which includes an appearance with Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra in New York, he performs with the Saint Louis, Toronto, Gothenburg, and City of Birmingham symphony orchestras, as well as with his own string ensemble, the Ehnes Quartet. He also leads the winter and summer festivals of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, of which he is Artistic Director.
The concert ends with Edward Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ – or ‘Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (“Enigma”), Op. 36’ as it’s formally known – a work “Commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness,” in the words of the composer himself. It’s a set of variations dedicated “to my friends pictured within”, according to Elgar, and therein lay one of the enigmas associated with the work, for he didn’t reveal the identities of his “friends”, save for a set of initials next to each variation – clues which weren’t hard to resolve.
The other enigma was more obscure, what Elgar described as “a larger theme” which “‘goes’, but is not played – so the principal Theme never appears …..”. Whether or not this theme ever existed is not known, but if so, it’s assumed that only his wife, Alice, knew, and his good friend, music publisher Augustus J Jaeger.
Whatever the actuality, the Enigma Variations – written between 1898 and 1899 – proved to be a turning point in both Elgar’s life, and in British music. It’s his best known large-scale composition. The Adagio, ‘Nimrod’, which has become popular as a standalone piece, is often played on solemn occasions in Britain, notably at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday each November. The name of this variation is that of an Old Testament patriarch who was described as “a mighty hunter”, leading to the assumption that this variation was dedicated to Augustus J Jaeger, “jäger” being the German word for hunter.
The concert takes place at Davies Symphony Hall on January 30 and February 1. For tickets and information, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
The performance on Thursday, January 31 takes place at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. For more information about this state-of-the-art venue, please visit sfsymphony.org/greenmusic.