San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Ragnar Bohlin, choral director
Erin Wall, soprano
Kendall Gladen, mezzo-soprano
William Burden, tenor
Nathan Berg, bass
Shuler Hensley, narrator
Ligeti – Lux Aeterna
Schoenberg – A Survivor from Warsaw
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9, “Choral”
This review starts with a whiny disclaimer, since it should be a review of Ligeti, Schoenberg, and Beethoven at Davies Hall, but arriving at the door of the auditorium at 7:59 on Friday June 29th, I and a number of other concert-goers found the doors already shut and our entrance prevented by the diligent house staff. I’ve actually never before arrived anywhere at an 8pm performance where seating was closed by 8pm. To be sportsmanlike, I guess I have to call it “my bad,” but…oh, nevermind.
I will say that my disappointment at missing the atmospheric Lux Aeterna by György Ligeti was heightened by the surprisingly primitive video and audio feed from the auditorium to the lobby. There was no point in watching or listening at all to the distorted sound and picture, and that’s something Davies could and should remedy.
Hence my attendance began at 8.12 when I sat down to a 7-minute performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1947 A Survivor from Warsaw, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and narrated by Tony-Award winner Shuler Hensley. Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of precision and assurance, and the men of the Symphony Chorus sang out powerfully. Hensley was unhappily over-miked at the start. I sensed that someone dialed down his volume perhaps two thirds of the way through, which restored some measure of balance to the mix, but I wish there had additionally been a way to dial down some of Hensley’s overt emotionality.
I don’t underestimate the challenge of moderating the tone in a text of such raw brutality. The composer himself authored the libretto; and although it carries some historical inaccuracies, it does not distort the horrors of the Holocaust and the violent chaos that consumed the Jews of Warsaw. I cannot say that Hensley seemed exaggerated or unconvincing in his delivery. Rather, I think he would have had greater impact in a more restrained, perhaps even more stylized approach, which would have allowed listeners to meet the piece half-way. I worry there’s a level of churlishness in saying “tone down the Shoah, please,” yet a little less might have been a lot more before we began the intermission at about 8.20.
Maestro Thomas had clearly mapped out a sophisticated trajectory for the concert to which, for obvious reasons, I cannot do full justice. Chronologically the compositions worked their way backwards from the 1960s through the 1940s to 1824. Stylistically there was a retrograde progression from chromaticism and “micropolyphony” (Ligeti’s own coinage) through atonality to early Romanticism and the “beer-hall melody” (Leonard Bernstein’s coinage) of the finale to Beethoven’s 9th. The series of texts began with the promise of miraculous eternal life found in classical Christian redemption theology. In the second piece, inescapable earthly slaughter was symbolically, but only symbolically, defeated by the (even more ancient) Jewish martyrs’ recitation of the Shema Yisroel. Schiller’s humanist call to universal brotherhood batted clean-up.
The weave of eras, media, and messages was brilliant, in theory. I’m not sure, based on the mood at the very early intermission and at the conclusion of the concert in total, that it worked in practice.
If it worked, the impact of the sequencing hit me most deeply in the third movement of the Beethoven, when Thomas and the Symphony created a new atmosphere of calm and melodic firmness with beautiful playing from the 2nd violins and the violas. At that moment, I felt a spiritual intentionality in Thomas’s conducting that, frankly I had missed in the expert and extrovert Schoenberg and the unengaging first two movements of the Beethoven. Normally, one can’t really judge a conductor on her or his spiritual performance, but with a program like this, Thomas clearly invited his audience to a spiritual as well as musically challenging evening.
The fugal second movement of the Beethoven was paced at what I would call a customary speed. It felt musically mainstream if not particularly imaginative. The first movement showed an unexpected dramatic void. One couldn’t sense Thomas’s appreciating the contrasts and tensions built into the score. He favored long phrases that didn’t feel rushed but that didn’t surprise or challenge the listener either.
Elegance and weight were best felt in the Adagio of the third movement. The final movement again paled theatrically in comparison to its potential. A lackluster solo quartet carried some of the blame: even the normally stellar William Burden was only intermittently audible under the choral sound in the notoriously difficult ‘military’ section. Tenors only succeed there if they can endow their high notes with both adequate squillo and good intonation. Burden may have been on pitch, but even seated mid-orchestra and straining hard, I simply couldn’t hear him. Bass Nathan Berg’s top register was tight and his bonhomie on the comprimario rather than heroic scale. Erin Wall’s soprano was overparted. The mezzo line in the 9th is ungratefully invisible under most circumstances, this performance included, so Kendall Gladen stands in a long tradition of mezzos whose talents one has to hear elsewhere to be able to judge one way or another.
At the end of the performance certainly the orchestral virtuosity (despite two very audible horn blemishes) and Thomas’s assurance were sincerely appreciated by the audience. By far, though, Ragnar Bohlin’s world-class chorus earned the strongest ovation, making me even more regretful about that whole 7.59/8pm business.