Fleet Virtuosity Has a Date with Davies
It might have felt like a bait-and-switch to anyone who didn't get the memo. Israeli-born conductor Asher Fisch was pulled in by the San Francisco Symphony at a late date to replace the originally scheduled SFS debut of Jaap van Zweden, Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. After the unaware got up to speed by reading their programs, the general attitude appeared to be, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," or more precisely, "nothing lost."
Fisch, currently Principal Guest Conductor of the Seattle Opera, got his own surprise SFS debut without much ado, and any disappointed patrons will catch up with the missing Dutchman another time (his excuse was a scheduling malfunction). We rather doubt the real draw was the conductor anyway. Jaap van Zweden has a solid reputation and we look forward to encountering him live, but French pianist David Fray was also on the bill, and most non-subscription tickets were probably sold on the strength of his growing fan base.
As it turns out, the entire concert proved to be an unanticipated pleasure. Fisch was an unknown individual before, but he convincingly showed his appreciation of the burnished glories of the Brahms Symphony No. 4, and also proved why he is a respected opera conductor. His fine reading of Wagner's Prelude to Act I of "Lohengrin" came as a welcome tonic to San Francisco Opera conductor Nicola Luisotti's less polished rendition heard just a week before in the War Memorial.
The Prelude still didn't sound ethereal or thrilling enough for my taste (maybe it is only how we hear it in our heads), but Fisch immediately took charge, and his smooth and refined approach made the inclusion of the Brahms Fourth on the second half of the bill seem all the more logical.
Between times, young David Fray approached the piano with his expected air of self-containment, but this was the only behavior he repeated to echo his SFS debut in 2010. We were a little chagrined by his attitude then: humming as much as Glenn Gould, hunching and slouching over the keyboard, and gesturing strangely while he worked his way through the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2. If you could get past the obvious theatrics, it wasn't a bad performance. Fray is deeply attracted to Austro-German composers, and his recordings and videos back him up. He will need a few more miles on him before his Beethoven is totally convincing, but his Bach and even Schubert recordings assure most listeners that he is already a technically adept and interpretively satisfying artist.
He is also as handsome as a cologne model. His highly photogenic face has yielded a full portfolio of smoldering glamor shots, and while this shouldn't impact on his drawing power at the box office, we all know that it does. I say more power to him. Like Tessie Tura belted out in "Gypsy," "You gotta get a gimmick." Fray has the talent to assure his musical credentials after the first impressions, and there is no harm in adding a little pop-culture appeal to a classical career.
Losing the studied James Dean affect was a wise decision at this point. Fray most recently gave us a late Mozart Piano Concerto (No. 22, in E-flat Major), and this time he really nailed the performance without any superfluous drama. Even without Jaap van Zweden to conduct (with whom he has recorded and performed the piece before), the former Shenson Young Artist of two years past has developed into a wonderful Mozart interpreter.
There were a few slightly labored moments in the passagework of the first movement, but a wonderful central Andante (with a fabulously crafted interlude provided by the winds) led to a rollicking closing Rondo: Allegro. Any dark clouds were dispelled, and Fisch kept the orchestra delightfully in synch with Fray's weighty but fleet virtuosity.
The Brahms Fourth closed the night in a big and heartfelt way. Fisch adopted a confident and loving approach from the beginning, and he kept things moving beautifully until a brief episode of rhythmic hesitation in the final movement.
It was hardly enough to spoil a particularly rich rendition of the score, and the conductor who kind of edged his way to the podium to make a debut at Davies Symphony Hall will surely get more fanfare when he returns. He has guaranteed another invitation.