|The San Francisco Symphony wraps up their centennial season with a performance of Beethoven's 9th featuring soloists Erin Wall, Kendall Gladen, William Burden and Nathan Berg. Photo by Kristen Loken.|
It seemed an inevitable and right choice for the San Francisco Symphony to close out their centennial season with a four-night run of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. A performance of it, despite its omnipresence, still has the air of an event, as was the case in 1995 when Michael Tilson Thomas began his tenure as Music Director with a program similar to this week's, conducting the Ninth, Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw and three pieces for the chorus by Charles Ives. This time around Schoenberg is still on the bill, but Ives has been replaced by Gyorgy Ligeti, perhaps because of the prominence of Ives' work in the recent American Mavericks festival.
Then, as now, it's a nice bit of thematic programming. On their own, the two works seem radically different from Beethoven's, but when placed together they create a musical symmetry not only commenting and expanding upon Schiller's themes of the Ninth's fourth movement, but as performed here in reverse chronological order of composition, illustrate how these themes have evolved in Western Art music over the past 200 years or so. Or something like that.
The Ninth on its own would have been enough to get me in the door, but to me these concerts seemed designed to put a final exclamation point on a season which had an extraordinary amount of highlights. If it didn't quite feel that way after all was said and performed, that may be due to my heightened sense of expectation.
Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin led his charges through a ghostly, mesmerizing account of Ligeti's Lux aeterna, five lines of text from a Roman Catholic mass, not a word of which is decipherable as the sixteen-part mixed chorus moves through polyphonic clouds of sound. Alternating between moments which sounded beautiful and frightening, and often both, the nine-minute performance showed off the Symphony Chorus at its finest- at times their voices sounded not human, but seemed to emanate from some great, reverberating otherworldly presence. At others their sound was like that of an organ being played in a vast, empty and echoing cathedral. There really is nothing like hearing a Ligeti choral work performed live and this was an excellent example of why.
Schoenberg's Survivor, lasting only seven minutes or so, goes by too fast for me to really be able to grasp beyond a superficial level. I found my attention focusing on either Shuler Hensley's narration or Schoenberg's spiky music, but experiencing both together as a coherent whole escaped me.
The first movement of the Ninth got off to a ruddy start- it unfolded with neither extreme force nor sleek delineation, with MTT seeming determined to hit a spot between the two extremes. During his tenure MTT's interpretations of Beethoven have proven to be fluid- I've heard him lead stripped-down, sprightly, lean-machine performances, only to revisit the same score a couple of years later and turn it inside-out, as if wanting to savor every morsel found within. Often one can tell where he's going from the beginning, but Wednesday night's first movement really didn't provide much of a clue as to what was going to follow.
The second movement scherzo featured Bill Bennett's oboe to lovely effect in a fleet, though not lean, rendering that never quite captured the score's dancing rhythms. The third movement seemed focused on rhythm over melody, with the pizzicato portions from the strings receiving more emphasis than the bowed. While it lulled my companion to sleep, I found it a curious and alluring choice.
The fourth movement didn't really take off until the orchestra hit the Turkish march with its sprightly rhythm. Nathan Berg's invocation rang with sincerity. Berg held the score in his hands but never once even glanced at it, which I found pleasing. The same was true for soprano Erin Wall, who was, as usual in excellent voice. Mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen (SFO's Carmen last season) was also in good voice, though once she began singing I don't think she ever took her eyes off MTT, except for occasional glances to the score. Tenor William Burden shone toward the end. Musically, the chorus was simply on fire, delivering an emphatic, passionate performance which rivaled those of the recent Verdi Requiems for sheer power and precision. The orchestra itself didn't quite match these levels of intensity until the last couple of minutes- when everything finally gelled and the music burst from the stage. Had it been that way from the start it would have been phenomenal. As it was, in the end it proved to be a nice way to end a wonderful season, but fell short of being a triumphant culmination of the orchestra's major milestone.