Capucon joins S.F. Symphony for radiant Elgar Concerto

San Francisco Chronicle

With time and experience we learn to mistrust the impulse to read biography into art — to suppose, for instance, that a piece of music reflects in some straightforward way the emotional state of the composer. But Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which got a stirringly eloquent performance on Wednesday night by cellist Gautier Capuçon and the San Francisco Symphony under guest conductor Charles Dutoit, puts that resolution to the test.

It was the last major score that Elgar wrote, and it came at a particularly difficult juncture in a life that the hypersensitive composer, at least, felt was full of difficult junctures. His beloved wife was in failing health — she would die just a few months after the premiere — and the accolades and recognition that Elgar had never fully trusted anyway were beginning to dissipate.

That combination of heart-on-sleeve expressivity and stoic heroism ran like a current through Wednesday’s performance in Davies Symphony Hall, with Capuçon leading the way and Dutoit and the orchestra supporting him at every turn. Both strains were present in the deep and ruminative solo recitative that opens the concerto, one of Elgar’s most inventive strokes, which Capuçon shaped tenderly but with robust force.

Each time Elgar crafted some sort of emotional legerdemain — in the wonderful transition between the first two movements, for instance, where the orchestra rouses the soloist from a moody reverie to vault into the scherzo, or in the haunting return of earlier themes at the conclusion of the piece — Capuçon and Dutoit made the moment count. And for sheer surface beauty, it would be hard to top the sumptuousness and simplicity that Capuçon brought to the concerto’s limpid slow movement.

The remainder of the program seemed almost calculated to counterbalance the expressive lushness of the Elgar. Stravinsky’s ultra-tart 1936 ballet score “Jeu de cartes” opened the evening in the only Symphony performance since the composer himself led the work here three years after its premiere.

There are brilliant aspects to the score, including the diamond-edged clarity of the instrumental writing in the first of the piece’s three tableaux, and the knowing parodies in the third of Johann Strauss Jr., Rossini and others. And Dutoit brought out these virtues and more, in a crisp, rhythmically taut reading.

The second half of the program was given over to Ravel’s familiar orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in a performance that sounded unnervingly lax and lackadaisical. Principal trumpeter Mark Inouye infused some welcome life into the proceedings with a blazing opening “Promenade” and again in his stuttering solo work in “Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuel,” but otherwise the performance mostly lacked cohesion or even precision.

Read the rest of the review here