After the "Kyrie" ended, Rosine Stoltz leaned over and slyly whispered into my ear "It doesn't sound like Beethoven." She was right of course, and though I was already dissecting my own thoughts regarding what was puzzling me about the performance so early into it, it wasn't that it didn't sound sound like Beethoven so much as it didn't sound like what I expected to hear. Expectations are tricky threads to unravel, and when it comes to Beethoven, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, I have a long, knotty history of them- at times they've been exceeded beyond measure, others left them cruelly frayed.
It wasn't until last night I realized this was due to the baggage which I bring to any performance of Beethoven specifically, which MTT seems to be particularly, refreshingly free of and it's only as I write this I see what a compliment that is to the conductor and how it confines me as a listener.
Thankfully I don't approach all composers this way- there are only two others which I can think of with whom I have the same constriction of expectations- Wagner and Rachmaninoff- and they arise from my own personal history of listening to and experiencing classical music in performance, which in essence boils down to the highly unreasonable expectation that these three should sound a particular way, and when they don't I come away with a sense of disappointment. Ridiculous, yes, but probably understandable- and I doubt I'm only the only one.
Beethoven's Missa Solemnis
hasn't been performed by the Symphony in over fifteen years and I've never experienced it live before. Add to that I only own, and am familiar with, one recording of it: a particularly lush, romantic live recording conducted by James Levine leading the Vienna Phil with Domingo, Jessye Norman, Cheryl Studer and Kurt Moll- a recording whose absence on the list of those recommended in the concert program is perhaps telling, especially since the list favors approaches that I can tell without even knowing them first-hand will sound noticeably lighter in approach (Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir heads the list with Bernstein and the Royal Concertgebouw bringing up the rear- there has to be a deliberation in such decisions, I'm sure).
On top of all this baggage, the work itself stands off to the side as a unique thing in Beethoven's oeuvre- written late, of the same period as the Ninth Symphony, but a different beast altogether and not something one typically hears without deliberately seeking it out. My main question after last night, which may require attending another performance to resolve, is where the focus of the work really rests- is it in the chorus and soloists or in the orchestra? Ideally, my expectations clamor it should be balanced equally between the two (which is what one hears in the Levine recording), but that's not what we heard last night, where the vocal elements of the work were clearly placed in the forefront for most of the performance.
What further puzzles me is that the orchestra's music supports this imbalance for the first three of the five (six?) sections, though of course there are exceptions in each section- especially for the winds in the first two, and it's really not until the Sanctus and Agnus Dei sections, that for me at least, the music rises to the foreground for significant stretches. There are no sections containing a development nor anything else musically one would "expect" hear in a late-period Beethoven work - at least as far as the instrumentation goes, which leads me back to the question of balance because those late-period elements are certainly there in the parts for the soloists and chorus- in fact there's an abundance of them, and the chorus under director Ragnar Bohlin sounded magnificent. They were accompanied by four extremely talented soloists- the marvelous soprano Christine Brewer (which is a case of luxury casting as far as I'm concerned), mezzo Katarina Karneus, tenor Gregory Kunde, and bass Ain Anger. This was my first time hearing Karneus and Anger, and I'd like to see all four of these soloists across Grove street in the near future, please.
Going to back to MTT and Beethoven for a moment, I have to also weigh whether this was a deliberate choice on his part because you can never tell what he's going to deliver when it comes to Beethoven. I only now realize he's completely free from interpreting Beethoven as if he should be performed "in this way or that" and it's like a light bulb has gone on in my mind. I've heard MTT lead "Eroica"s and Ninths of astonishing fleetness and transparency and others weighted with gravitas from the opening chords which never found their way into the light (for the record, in case you couldn't figure it out, I usually preferred the latter approach, which now I'll have to reconsider). What I used to think of as an annoying inconsistency has been revealed to be something much more interesting and enlightening.
After the "Credo" I leaned over and whispered in Rosine's ear, "Do you hate it?"
She whispered back, "I'm now in the mood to listen to Rossini!"
We leaned back into our seats to absorb the remainder, which included an absolutely rhapsodic solo by concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. I appreciated the tone of his violin more than Rosine did. When it was over I was still puzzled by it all, unable to sort it within in my mind, still feeling the impressions of the soloists and the chorus pressing somewhere into my consciousness with vague deliberation.
After the final note faded Rosine said, "I liked it more than you think I did," though I had implied no such opinion. In fact, I had said nothing at all to elicit the remark. So like her to say such a thing- exposing all while providing nothing corporeal in the exchange- a thread laid down to be picked up- or not.
We picked ourselves up and strode over to Sauce, where I did indeed pick up the thread, wound it loosely around it my finger, and twisted into a small knot with deliberation. And there you are.
There are three more performances Friday- Sunday.