Sunday, April 07, 2013

Saint Cecilia Smiles on SF Symphony Strikers

The San Francisco Symphony strike was over almost before it seriously began, and I am not sure who is more relieved: the musicians, the support staff and management, or the listening public. (Editor's note: In fact, the musicians have not yet ratified their new contract, so this may be a temporary bit of good news.) Their first concerts this weekend since their three-week work stoppage began was a serendipitous bit of programming, starting with Ave verum corpus, a three-minute prayer for chorus, strings and organ that Mozart wrote in the last months of his life in 1791. It was a gift for Anton Stoll, the choirmaster and organist at Baden where Mozart's wife Constanze was taking the waters at the local spa.

This was followed by Mozart's Symphony #39, in a beautiful performance conducted by the French Canadian Bernard Labadie. If you are an artist and not feeling particularly appreciated, consider the case of Mozart's last three symphonies, which he whipped out in succession during the summer of 1788 in the hope of performing them at a new casino, a concert series that probably never materialized if his letters of the period confessing total monetary indebtedness are any indication. In other words, the three works that are the linchpin symphonies in Western musical history between Haydn, who created the form, and Beethoven, were probably never heard live by their own composer.

Mozart is tricky, in that you either understand him instinctively as a listener and musician, or you don't. His music is deceptively simple, simultaneously breezy and deep, and it requires a sympathetic performer to bring out both sides at the same time. Labadie fulfilled that description, and even more excitingly, so did the reduced orchestra, who don't often work under great Mozart conductors. (As much as I admire music directors Tilson Thomas and Blomstedt before him, Mozart was never one of their strengths.) Most of Symphony #39 sounds like Haydn or early Beethoven, but the second slow movement is both so simple and so unearthly beautiful that it reminds you in a good performance why Mozart is in a special category of his own.

The second half of the concert was Handel's hour-long, 1739 Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day for orchestra, organ, large chorus, and a tenor and soprano soloist. Saint Cecilia was a local cult among English poets who competed with each other in writing odes to the Patron Saint of Music in lyrics that were meant to be sung. John Dryden's version is the one that Handel used. It's almost an Adult's Guide to the Orchestra in that the vocal soloists interact explicitly with different individual instruments as they extol their particular powers, punctuated by exciting moments for the chorus and full orchestra.

It was joyful hearing the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in action again because in my 40 years of listening to this ensemble, they have never sounded better, and their possible long absence felt like a serious loss. (Above is Ragnar Bohlin, chorus director.)

Saint Cecilia wasn't blessing everything about the performance because the soprano soloist Lydia Teuscher, who has the most to sing in this cantata, cancelled at the last minute with unspecified illness and was replaced by Cyndia Sieden. Though Ms. Sieden deserves every thanks for rushing in and saving the day, her performance was seriously inadequate next to the excellence of the orchestra, chorus and the tenor Nicholas Phan above. He was so good, and filled Davies Hall so easily with his small frame and huge voice, that we didn't want him to stop singing. He'll be performing as Fenton in Falstaff at the Portland Opera in May along with Susannah Biller and Thomas Glenn, two of my favorite former Adler artists, so if you're the Northwest, don't miss it.

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