Tuesday, September 27, 2016

An Italian Journey with the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony offered a wacky program last week that they were marketing as An Italian Journey. In its jumps through centuries and musical genres, from Baroque chamber music to a 1960s avant-garde symphonic masterpiece to Verdi choral music to old-fashioned solo arias, the program could have been a disaster or a major success. It's a treat to report that the latter was the case. The concert started off with new principal oboe Eugene Izotov giving a superb, soulful account of Marcello's early 18th century Oboe Concerto in C Minor. He also lead a chamber ensemble of first-chair players and it was one of the better Baroque performances I've heard from the SF Symphony at Davies.

This was followed by the forbidding, insanely difficult (to play and absorb), amusing, and endlessly interesting Sinfonia by Luciano Berio, written for the New York Philharmonic in 1969. The soloists are eight amplified singers, and the original vocalists were the Swingle Singers, which has to be the greatest chamber chorus name ever. The English ensemble still exists with replacements from the current generation, and they were the soloists at Davies Hall on Saturday evening.

My only complaint is that Davies Hall has some of the crappiest amplified sound systems in San Francisco, and the definitive sound of the Swingle Singers was muted and a bit muddy when it should have been thrust much further into the foreground. When I heard this piece live last year for the first time at the UC Davis Mondavi Center, the vocal soloists were a much more important part of the texture. As good as the student orchestra was at UC Davis, hearing the expert Mahler orchestra that is the SF Symphony play the third movement of Sinfonia, with Mahler's Scherzo from his Resurrection Symphony sliced and diced, was an exquisite treat. The crazy music has been running through my head for the rest of the week.

After intermission, the great San Francisco Symphony Chorus sang Verdi's Te Deum, a short (13-minute) sacred choral piece that the anticlerical composer wrote near the end of his life. I had never heard it live before and it instantly became one of my favorite Verdi pieces ever.

The programming for this concert, in fact, felt a bit like the SoundBox concerts, with their surprising mixture of short musical styles and repertory discoveries, impeccably performed.

The finale of the evening involved young tenor superstar Michael Fabiano singing a trio of Italian opera arias, including Donizetti's Una Furtiva Lagrima and an aria from Verdi's Simon Boccanegra and Il Corsaro, the latter ending the evening with the urgent backing of the men's chorus. My favorite was Luciano Berio's orchestration of Il Poveretto, a song by Verdi about a poor person on the street.

Though Fabiano is not my favorite current tenor, he's got a lovely, forceful voice, and has some of the best Italian singing diction around. My companion for the evening drooled over his performance, by the way, as did many others in the audience.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Now I want to know who your favorite tenor is.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Lisa: That's a good question. I was so stumped that I rummaged through this blog to find my favorite tenors. So here are some names, some famous and some not, some local and some with international careers, who make me happy when I see them on a program right now: I love the voices of Brandon Jovanovich, Thomas Glenn, Simon O'Neill, Kyle Stegall, Piotr Beczala, Nicholas Phan, Brian Thorsett, Matthias Goerne, Juan Diego Flores and I'm sure I'm missing a few.

Lisa Hirsch said...

That's a nice group, although I believe Matthias Goerne would be puzzled to find his name on a list of tenors. :)

Stephen Smoliar said...

I was glad to see at least one other observer make note of how "Sinfonia" had been undermined by terrible acoustics. As I wrote in my own account, I have increased respect for the thought that Mason Bates puts into speaker placement when his own synthesized sources are at stake. The vocalists were stuck with their voices coming out of that mega-array of movie speakers way above the orchestra!

On the other hand, lack of balance was not only a matter of amplification. SFS may have had a better command of Mahler than the Davies group did; but, under MTT, just about every other musical quotation (with very rare exceptions) got lost in the musical wash. This is why I came to the conclusion that this is one of those rare pieces that works better on a recording that has the advantage of both skilled microphone placement and sensitive mixing techniques.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Lisa: Whoops! Strike the Matthias G.