Originally published on March 22, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
Last night in Davies Symphony Hall I was able to reflect on an observation that Joshua Kosman had made in Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle:
Before intermission, principal cellist Michael Grebanier offered a correct but curiously buttoned-up account of Bloch’s “Schelomo.” Here was just the occasion for emotional extravagance – Bloch’s Hebraic rhapsody starts on an impassioned note and never abandons it – yet Grebanier seemed almost embarrassed by the music’s extroverted qualities, and he and Luisotti struggled to meet in the middle.
Having now heard the performance, I can understand why it left this impression; but I would like to suggest that this approach to interpretation was a deliberate one that was far from “buttoned-up.” Rather, the interpretation reflected a contextual understanding of the text from Ecclesiastes that inspired it at a time (1916) when most of the Western World had gone mad with war.
Ecclesiastes is the final meditation of King Solomon, looking back on his many achievements as leader and builder of the Temple (not to mention the lover in the Song of Solomon) and concluding that “all is vanity.” Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo” (Hebrew for Solomon) is not so much a dialog between soloist and orchestra as it is the very struggle that Kosman recognized. The solo cello is Solomon, despairing over the futility that he has just recognized, while the orchestra embodies the vanities of the world over which he is despairing. This is anything but a sympathetic relationship. Bloch summoned considerable orchestral resources and a keen sense of orchestration, but all the extroversion of the music is in the orchestra. Its passions are superficial; and, approximately half-way through the composition, the very chant of prayer becomes an object of mockery. In the midst of this madness (the vanity perceived by Solomon now embodied in the First World War), the cello reflects on Solomon’s condition and his need to cling to an I-and-Thou approach to prayer lest the vanities of the world overcome him. Bloch described the work as ending “in complete negation,” which is why the all-too-real struggle between the cello and the orchestra can (and should) never be resolved.
Conductor Nicola Luisotti’s last appearance in San Francisco was at the end of last year on the podium at the San Francisco Opera production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, his first performance since being named the Opera’s new Music Director. At that time he displayed one of the most perceptive understandings of Puccini’s score that I have encountered. “Schelomo” is about as diametrically opposed to Bohème as one can get; but Luisotti again hit the nail on the head in teasing the understanding out of the “emotional extravagance.” Perhaps he realized that the cello solo is less a matter of virtuoso display and more like the sort of tormented character one might encounter in an opera. (Jacopo Fiesco in Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra comes to mind.) This is a versatile conductor; and I, for one, am looking forward to future opportunities to hear him on the podium.