San Francisco Symphony, Jean-Yves Thibaudet navigate new pieces

Illustration of symphony
Jericho Tang/Staff

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On the afternoon of Feb. 16, Davies Symphony Hall contained an air of lighthearted relaxation, a stark contrast to the typical, almost-daunting, professional environment of most evening performances. Perhaps this was because it was an afternoon performance, or perhaps it was because it was the final performance in a three-show weekend of mastering old, well-known pieces with the debut of a new composition. Legendary pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Fabien Gabel, with three pieces: Paul Dukas’ “La Péri,” Aaron Zigman’s “Tango Manos” and Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Symphony No. 3.” While each piece came from separate genres and different eras of music, they each evoked imagination through whimsical passages that created a fantasy narrative.

“La Péri” notably stands as a short piece, lasting fewer than 20 minutes. During that duration, however, Dukas’ piece crafts a musical story through a “poème dansé,” or danced poem. When it was performed to Parisian society in the early 20th century, it guided a ballet through a set of Persian folklore stories, full of dashing princes, a sought-after object promising immortality and a winged female spirit of mysterious attraction. The symphony gracefully built tension to open the piece, with the violins stretching out thin, wispy notes that lay the foundation for woodwind melodies to follow. A call-and-response situation unfurled, with the principal flute and clarinet spiraled together in a whirlwind of runs. The addition of two harpists called for a delicate exposition of sound, as the two performers paired with the principal violinist to envision the romantic, winged spirit.

The instrumentation spoke to the fantasy of Dukas’ themes, as different voices would suddenly spring forth from the woodwinds, similar to the fluttering of wings or the sudden emergence of a new character. Tension and conflict developed with the addition of medium-ranged instruments, as the cellos, French horns and English horn joined the narrative. “La Péri” remained interesting throughout because it told a story — there was a clear exposition, conflict and a peaceful resolution, with the instruments lightly releasing the final chord, each bow lifted from the instrument in a sigh-like manner.

Following the fantasy-building of the Dukas piece, the symphony headed to the U.S. debut of Zigman’s “Tango Manos” with elated energy to create a different type of narrative. This narrative was not defined by a story like the previous piece. Instead, the piece’s utilization of castanets and heavy percussion added personality to Zigman’s tango-based concerto. Commissioned by the Beijing Music Festival, Radio France and the San Francisco Symphony, this concerto reunited Zigman with his old friend and contemporary, Thibaudet. Both Zigman and Thibaudet hold reputations as legends in the film industry with their involvement in scores and soundtracks of notable works such as “Pride & Prejudice,” “Sex and the City” and “The Notebook.”

Zigman’s piece contained many sweeping passages that emanated the emotions of a European summer developed into the sultry tension of a tango. The tête-à-tête between temperate and fiery movements of the piece made for an incredibly dynamic performance. The true star, however, was Thibaudet — his effortless evocation of fast-paced piano movements was something to behold. Thibaudet played with the character of the piece, interacting with the music in an intense yet playful manner. This character was furthered by the composer’s interactions, as Zigman was in attendance at the performance to witness the symphony’s rendition of his work. Zigman often shut his eyes, overcome by the rich emotions of the piece, swaying his shoulders in a tango-like style. In faster, more percussion-accentuated sections, he tapped his knees in line with the syncopation, his reactions adding a new dimension to the overall attitude of the tango.

The symphony finished out the afternoon with the Saint-Saëns piece, and after the intensity of “Tango Manos,” it provided a reprieve with its slower pace. A curious mix of brass fanfare, nervous string tension and quick, staccato woodwind notes, the piece held interest throughout. This “orgelsinfonie” utilized its namesake, the organ, to build a deep base of reverberating sound. The organ filled the hall with a sound that overtook all other sensations, and the orchestra layered on top of its base to form velvety, darker-sounding chords. As expected, the symphony delivered on this Saint-Saëns classic, forming the composer’s signature ominous tone.

Thibaudet, Zigman and the San Francisco Symphony united to produce musical narratives that differed in genre and tone, but not in inspired interest. Each piece was dynamic, with every performer leaving the audience engaged. The San Francisco Symphony’s performance was a musical exploration into both new compositions and renditions of classics. 

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].