Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mozart in Bloom: David Fray and the San Francisco Symphony

My program, signed by pianist David Fray. Lucky me!

I believe a pianist of any level should attend as many live performances of other artists as much as possible, not only for educational purposes but for the sheer  inspiration.  On October 26th, I had the great pleasure of hearing the French pianist David Fray perform live.  Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482 (1785) was the centerpiece of the evening, flanked by Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (1848) and Brahms’ weighty Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885). Asher Fisch led the San Francisco Symphony.

I had enjoyed Mr. Fray’s renditions of the Bach Keyboard Concertos through album purchases, but I had not yet heard him play Mozart and was thrilled when San Francisco Symphony announced the inclusion of this program.

Mr. Fray’s interpretation was exquisite.  I confess this was the most beautiful experience I have ever had listening to a Mozart piano concerto.  His touch was sensitive to the utmost without ever pussyfooting; he was deliberate when he saw fit, and alternately tender and tenuous or ever so slyly mischievous.  He approached the work very seriously as an intellectual but also with great feeling. His cadenzas were clearly thought out and yet the effect was akin to crimson hued silk ribbons tumbling forth pell-mell: a glorious, unbridled joy.

Most interestingly, I might have enjoyed the performance even better had I closed my eyes more; Mr. Fray is tall and strikingly handsome in a rather wild, Nureyev sort of way.  However, he sat hunched over the piano - on a chair and not a bench, no less - like the world’s most elegant vulture.  His gestures could almost be misconstrued as flippant.  When not playing, he gripped himself not unlike the classic psychiatric patient; head hung and chest caved in.  But while  his body conveyed a certain degree of sangfroid, the music told a different story: the melodies were so full of life, imbued with flesh and breathing and emotional depth.  It was somewhat of a challenge to reconcile the visual and the aural.

Mr. Fray’s control was impeccable.  He jumped directly into passages almost without preparation, and a rumbling bass passage electrified with its expertly handled yet organic crescendo-decrescendo swell.  Even the most accented notes were tinged with a bit of velvet.

The second movement, in C minor, saw a turn to the melancholy.  Despite the attempts of a flute and bassoon at lighthearted conversation, the mood darkened as the strings resurfaced.  Under Mr. Fisch’s direction and Mr. Fray’s interpretation the piano melody sang above these troubling undercurrents, cushioned and borne aloft by the strings.

The audience visibly perked as the familiar hunting melody of the third movement marked a return to gaiety.  A minuet-like section provided a lovely excursion. Towards the end, Mr. Fray brought this theme back hushed and tentative, working it up finally to its full playfulness.  It was as if the melody had tiptoed back in, looked around, and gradually lost inhibition to delight in itself.  The ending seemed characteristic of Mozart’s sense of humor - a bit of slow backtracking, and suddenly - surprise! - the end.

Mr. Fray had nearly launched himself bodily from the piano at the conclusion of several particularly exuberant passages, but thankfully he was still seated onstage when the audience made its pleasure and gratitude known.

The Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin was played in all its shimmering, ethereal glory.  The Wagnerian brass stepped in like a warm burst of sunlight towards the end, only to fade away as the strings transcended into the heavens once again.

The evening’s closer of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 tossed me into a sea of turmoil and doubt, but what more wonderful way to experience such troubled emotions than with Brahms?  The sense of the epic was ever present, but individual voices broke through especially in the second movement with the plaintive cry of the strings.  If there was ever a symphony that started and ended with doom and gloom, this is it.  But as intimated in Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, there can be a singular enjoyment in suffering.

After the concert, I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Fray and I expressed my appreciation of his performance.  He was gracious and signed my program.  Most of all, I was relieved that when Mr. Fray was away from the piano he had excellent posture!  

I am increasingly struck by how a pianist’s mannerisms and stage presence can enhance or detract from the performance.  After seeing Mr. Fray, I will be vigilant so as not to not develop any habits that might distract from the music.  I hope an artist like Mr. Fray is not troubled by this kind of worry, however.  When he plays, the music speaks clearly for itself.