September 29, 2015
The San Antonio Symphony opened its baroque series on Sept. 27 with two ear-tickling suites by Georg Philipp Telemann, conducted with zest by associate conductor Akiko Fujimoto,and appealing concertos by Alessandro Marcello and Antonio Vivaldi, featuring the orchestra’s splendid principal oboe, Paul Lueders. San Fernando Cathedral lent itsgenerous resonance to the occasion.
Listeners of an intellectual bent might bend their ears to the purely abstract qualities of baroque music, but vivid pictorialism and sensory boldness also were central to the style. On this concert, Telemann was represented by two of his most cinematic scores for string orchestra. The program opened with his ouverture-suite Les Nations and closed with the Burlesque de Quichotte.
The former devotes four of its eight (or nine, depending on how you count) movements to evocations of other cultures — fierce, bombastic Turks; deliberate Swiss, who test their theme in a grave tempo before breaking into a lively trot; spiritual Muscovites, whose Kremlin church bells are portrayed by the lower strings in a three-note ostinato and by the upper with surprisingly modern-sounding syncopation; and the Portuguese, whose music has no apparent relation to Portugal.
(The historical context of the piece might be worth a mention: It reflects the curiosity about foreign ways and the cultural relativism that were all the rage in 18th-century Europe, especially among the leading figures of the Enlightenment, and that influenced the leaders of the American Revolution via Montesquieu.)
The burlesque, one of several witty suites thus designated by Telemann, dramatizes in music several scenes from Cervantes’s proto-postmodern novel Don Quixote, including the tilting at windmills in Chapter 8 of Part I. This suite probably dates from the 1720s; Telemann would revisit the subject in 1761 with an opera, or serenata, based on incidents from three chapters in Part II.
Following historically-informed practice, the 19 strings played without vibrato, impeccably in tune and with the high polish that is normally associated only with ensembles that specialize in baroque music. There was nothing remotely dry or pedantic about the performances. Ms. Fujimoto brought to both suites a wealth of tempo play — including a delightful accelerando at the end of the already-speedy finale of the Quichotte — and big swings in dynamics. In common with most scores of the period, almost none of these effects were notated by the composer, but as rendered by Ms. Fujimoto and her orchestra they were true to the flamboyant spirit of the baroque.
Mr. Lueders brought similar expressive flexibility and rich but focused tone to the central slow movements of both concerti, and clean dexterity to the outer allegros, their rapid-fire demands executed with a relaxation that seemed to say, “Piece of cake.”
Excellent work, too, from the indispensable Kristin Roach on harpsichord.
Akiko Fujimoto speaks to the audience in the cathedral.
San Antonio Symphony, Akiko Fujimoto, Paul Lueders