The San Francisco Symphony's Beethoven Project began Thursday evening with a quirky program of his early work and rarities. The concert opened with the song "Adelaide," written in 1796 and being performed in these concerts using an arrangement by SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin. The opening minute and a half seemed like a mash-up using bits of Fidelio and the Miss Solemnis, while Robin Sutherland accompanied the chorus on piano pulling what seemed like an entire sequence of notes from the jaunty transition between the 2nd and 3rd movement of the 4th Piano Concerto. I enjoyed it, but at six minutes it's more amusing than revealing. The same can be said for the Sonatina in C major for Mandolin and Fortepiano. Clocking in at roughly three and a half minutes and almost completely forgettable, one wonders how it made it onto the program and why, unless it's meant as a bit of a joke. The piece was inspired by the Countess Josephine Clary, who, according to the image of her used in the program, was quite well-endowed and probably inspired a great number of men to do foolish things and waste much of their time, Beethoven among them.
Well, okay, it is nice to be reminded in programming like this that it's not all about the big and famous works we already know. In fact, what was great about this program was its decidedly contrarian programming, especially what was for many the main attraction- a chance to hear the Cantata on the Death of the Emperor Joseph II. I've never heard this performed live and I can't imagine many opportunites to do so exist, but it was an important topic when I took a class on Beethoven while in college so I was quite pleased to get a chance to hear it. LVB was only 19 when he composed it, but again one can hear parts that would eventually show up in Fidelio almost note for note, as well as many works in the "heroic" era and later. MTT and the orchestra, with a brilliant performance by the string section (the first one I've heard from them since returning from the strike) and led by the fabulous singing of the marvelously attired soprano Sally Matthews (who really needs to perform more here in the States) really made a case for the work as more than just an interesting historical or academic side note. A stunning (and pregnant) Tamara Mumford (a shout out to her neighbor Maria Gostrey out there in Sandy, Utah), Barry Banks and Andrew Foster-Williams were also on hand. If close attention to MTT's actions at the end of a performance can be interpreted, MTT was keener on Foster-Williams' performance than on Banks'. Truthfully I didn't notice because there was a woman seated directly behind me doing her best impersonation of Ozzy Osbourne hacking up a lung at the beginning of the Black Sabbath song "Sweet Leaf" during the entire thing. Speaking of Black Sabbath, did you know tickets go on sale for what's likely to be the band's last tour together tomorrow? I would love to go, except the damn thing is at Shoreline, a venue I hate, and I know that I won't be able to tolerate thousands of stoned 50 and 60-something-year-old men yelling "SAAABAAATH!!!!!" and "IRON MAN!" all night long. On the other hand, if someone gave me a ticket I would definitely be happy about that. Things like people coughing or talking during a performance used to bother me much more than they do now, but this woman was really starting to annoy the piss out of me. Somehow she thought it best to cough during the moments of silence, which is a really bad decision. Of course human nature being what it is, soon there were other coughers, though this is the fucking month of MAY already, people! Thankfully the coughing woman and her date left at intermission never to return and I didn't have to turn around and give her nasty looks of disapproval, because that's always so effective, right?
The most familiar piece on the program was the Symphony No. 2, which was the key to knowing how MTT is going to approach Beethoven for this particular series of concerts. Now I have to admit I have not always admired MTT's approach to Beethoven in the past, though once in awhile he switches things up, takes a new tack, and surprises everyone with the usually stellar results. Last night's 2nd was performed in MTT's usual approach, which is either growing on me or is exceptionally well-suited for this piece. Fleet and lean, with brisk tempos throughout, this is Beethoven without any sturm und drang but with plenty of heart. He wrung every bit of transparency he could from the strings, which jabbed and penetrated into the rhythms, and if the horns seemed to bobble it in the opening of the first movement, soon everything was clicking along beautifully- a vibrant, lively reading of a Symphony that deserves greater recognition among its peers.
The program repeats tonight. See the Symphony's website for the rest of the schedule.