January 11, 2020
The theme of the week was German music of the Romantic era. The star of the week was a young German conductor of the present era.
Friday in the Tobin Center, Christian Reif had a most impressive guest-conducting debut with the San Antonio Symphony in a program of Brahms and Wagner. The orchestra was abetted by the Mastersingers chorus, in luminous shape. The previous Sunday, Camerata San Antonio offered chamber music by the justly celebrated Robert Schumann and the justly forgotten August Klughardt.
Last spring Mr. Reif closed out a widely praised three-year term as resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony under music director Michael Tilson Thomas. Previously, Mr. Reif held a two-year conducting fellowship with the New World Symphony in Miami, also under Mr. Tilson Thomas. The pedigree was audible.
Throughout Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, which opened this concert, Mr. Reif evinced an ideal balance of analysis and synthesis. He clearly had studied the score intensely, considered it deeply, mapped a path to each movement’s destination, and commanded the technical means to bring the orchestra along with him. But indicating a more intuitive relationship to the score were often-speedy tempos (with excitingly turbocharged accelerandos), fully expressed dynamics, and generously sculpted phrases that never (well, almost never) interrupted the seamless, natural flow of the music.
Then, too, there was the classically Brahmsian sound Mr. Reif extracted from the orchestra – creamy, burnished, poised, weighty but not weighed down. (The sound Mr. Reif obtained in Brahms might have been a shade too luxuriously upholstered for the highly resonant acoustics of the H-E-B Performance Hall, but that’s a quibble.) The strings were in superb form, and the horns sounded glorious – especially principal Jeff Garza. Catch him while you can. He departs after this season to become principal horn with the Oregon Symphony in Portland.
Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” from Die Walküre, transcended cliché with a lithe, crisply detailed – almost pointillistic – performance.
In Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), to a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, the Mastersingers sang with warmth and lovely balances in the peaceful first stanza, dramatic punch and sizzle in the despairing, violent second. After the Schicksalslied, Mr. Reif chose, very oddly, to go without pause into the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, followed by several choral and orchestral excerpts that opera, all delivered with energy and authority by all concerned. As usual, bravo to the Mastersingers’ veteran director, John Silantien.
Camerata San Antonio’s January 5 concert at the University of the Incarnate Word held two works, Schumann’s String Quartet in A, Op. 41, No. 3, and Klughardt’s Piano Quintet in G minor. Matthew Zerweck was back in the first violin chair after taking paternity leave. His string colleagues were violinist Anastasia Parker, violist Emily Freudigman, and cellist Ken Freudigman. Frequent collaborator Viktor Valkov was the pianist in the Klughardt quintet.
The Schumann got a fully considered performance, with polished sound and excellent teamwork. (One especially nice example was the dialogue between Mr. Zerweck and Ms. Freudigman in the ruminative middle section of the slow third movement, both players digging in to boost the emotional intensity. The agitated second movement was satisfyingly pugilistic.
Klughardt (1846-1902) was known mainly as a conductor, but some of his own music was well regarded in his time. To judge from his G minor quintet, he combined considerable technical skill with little discernible talent. His melodies are stilted, his dramatic strokes bold but empty. Even in this fully committed, virtuosic performance, the piece seemed interminable.
Below: Reif with Michael Tilson Thomas.