Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Seasons in Pacific Heights

The San Francisco Choral Society sang Franz Joseph Haydn's last, monumental oratorio, Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons), in two performances this weekend at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Pacific Heights. The results were beautiful, magnificent and fun. (The above photo is of the performers in a glass-enclosed warmup room viewed from an outdoor garden at the church.)

The libretto to the three-hour oratorio from 1799 was based on poems by the Scottish poet James Thomson about the annual cycle of seasons from Spring to Winter as experienced by rural peasants. These were then loosely translated by Haydn's wealthy patron/librettist Gottfried von Swieten in Vienna after they successfully collaborated on The Creation.

Though the piece ends with praise for God Almighty, the spirit of the oratorio is almost entirely pagan, with paeans to young love, the fertility of nature, hunting, drinking wine, and the pleasures of community. Even the final Winter section, which threatens to turn gloomy when a traveler in the icy cold confronts his own mortality, has a happy ending when he comes across a cottage with a "glimmer of a light nearby." The moment is like an "up" Winterreise.

The San Francisco Choral Society is composed of amateurs, in that they don't get paid for their efforts, but in every other respect they are astonishingly professional. In the last year I have seen them perform Orff's Carmina Burana in Davies Hall, David Lang's battle hymns in Kezar Pavilion, and Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten. Three more different pieces of choral music would be hard to imagine, but they sang all of them with stylistic grace and beautiful sound. The acoustics in Calvary Presbyterian, by the way, are bright, warm and clear, though the sightlines from most of the pews leave a lot to be desired.

The oratorio featured the three soloists above as individual peasants Hanne (soprano Marcelle Dronkers), Lukas (tenor Brian Thorsett), and Simon (bass-baritone Eugene Brancoveanu). Dronkers was a fine musical performer, but I didn't particularly care for the timbre of her voice which is completely subjective on my part. Brancoveanu has a huge, ringing baritone that can be lovely, but on Sunday he was pushing his voice and oversinging in the small church, which didn't suit Haydn at all. Brian Thorsett, on the other hand, was exquisite, modulating his volume depending on the moment, and his German diction was so good that it felt as if you could understand every word whether you spoke the language or not. Thorsett has been specializing and excelling in performances of Benjamin Britten recently, and it was a joy to hear him sound this good in different music.

In the wrong hands, Haydn can quickly become a bore, but Artistic Director Robert Geary above turned out to be a wonderful conductor for this music, keeping the long piece lively, textured, and full of humor. The orchestral accompaniment by the professional California Chamber Symphony was superb, highlighted by solos for almost every instrumentalist.

The Choral Society's next concert is at the huge St. Ignatius Church in November where they will be performing Rachmaninoff's Vespers. If the recent past is any indication, the concerts are not to be missed.

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