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Nicola Luisotti [Photo by Roger Steen]
20 May 2013

Brahms Third in San Francisco

Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.

Brahms Third in San Francisco

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: Nicola Luisotti [Photo by Roger Steen]


It was an extraordinary evening at the opera, a perfect mise en scène (none) for San Francisco’s tyrannical maestro. The 70 member orchestra sat huddled in a black void and sang in one magnificent voice Brahms’ most lyrical symphony, its colors shining as never before, its moods of turgid Brahmsian contentment translocated into luminescent, metaphysical Latin lyricism.

It was opera, and this was understood by the audience who felt each movement as an extended aria, and unabashedly applauded each movement in unbridled appreciation of great singing. It was symphony as opera, the fifty-year-old composer spinning this famous yarn of contentment, its thematic play subsumed into joy of performance. Bel canto indeed.

The maestro can sometimes, even often be accused of imposing excessive drama, but Brahms offers him very little of it to manipulate. Thus the musical excess — and there was plenty of it — was limited to expected extreme tempo alterations and cantabile melodic exaggerations that illuminated and transfixed more than distorted an Alpine pastoral lyricism. Though it seemed a subdued Luisotti it was still a possessed Luisotti, a powerful conductor with a unique voice.

The Opera orchestra is known to be a very able ensemble, after all it performs the most difficult orchestral scores that exist. The sludgy sound of the War Memorial Opera House prevents perception of the beauty of its sound, sounds that until now we could only imagine. Though Zellerbach Hall is a dowdy acoustical space — the sound at first had a cavernous quality but once accepted it permitted the winds of the orchestra to sing with a beauty of tone reminiscent of the Vienna Philharmonic (yes, really it’s true). What the strings may lack in clarity of tone they make up in boldness, and this alone defines and qualifies this ensemble as a truly dramatic orchestra.

It was an evening of orchestral drama. Not least of which was the Nino Rota 1962 Piano Concerto in C major. Not much of Italian Fascist musical culture is around these days, but its heroic post-Romanticism certainly informed composer Rota’s musical formation and aspiration. Add this to the heady filmic creativity at mid-century Cinecitta and you have the sense of this musical relic. It challenged elegant French pianist Aldo Ciccolini at its premiere in 1987 but was a-piece-of-cake just now for 34 year-old Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese (no relationship to Licia).

Dressed in formal wear with scarlet spats young Albanese visually startled, and then attacked the American Steinway with the confidence of a finished post-Boulez virtuoso and a highly intelligent contemporary musician. Like Luisotti pianist Albanese was possessed by the music, the mechanics of the score and its execution played out physically and intellectually in full view, or let us say a vista. It was pure theater of musical performance. Mr. Albanese is also Professor of Philosophy at the University of Messina where he teaches the “methodology of musical communication.”

The Rota concerto was Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky but more so it was the myriad moods that composer Rota mined for films ranging from 8 1/2 to Godfather. These moods were often conversations between the piano and an instrument of the orchestra, raptly and rapturously executed in an atmosphere of absolute artistic collaboration imposed by the maestro.

The audience roared (yes, it was a vocal opera audience), and brought Albanese back for curtain calls. But two were enough for these lovers of voices. Never mind. This determined artist came back unsummoned to perform four encores — to our great pleasure! The highlights were Scriabin’s Left Hand Nocturne played with his downstage arm (the right one) hanging limply, and a version (showers of notes) of Gershwin’s song The Man I Love created by American piano virtuoso Earl Wilde.

Conductor Luisotti opened the program with Puccini’s 1883 Capriccio Sinfonico. From this early work Puccini literally recycled the flashier moments to La boheme (1896) and even Suor Angelica (1918). It served as a perfect, amusing overture to the evening.

Michael Milenski

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