November 22, 2019
What was it about the youngish Austrian conductor David Danzmayr that made such a memorable impression in his debut appearance with the San Antonio Symphony, Nov. 22 in the Tobin Center?
Was it his admirably clear, precise baton technique? His fleet tempos? His dramatically astute details? Well, yes, there was all that, but also something more that’s hard to describe – a way of making the music sail along a gleaming arc, a unitary but structured line. The feeling of inevitability in those lines brought joy, even in the prayerful tenderness of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, even in the Mozart Requiem’s evocations of regret and doom.
Mozart died in December 1791 before he could complete his setting of the Requiem Mass. He got through the Offertorium, and “completions” have been essayed by numerous composers. In the 19th and 20th centuries it was nearly always performed in the version prepared by Mozart’s student Franz Xaver Süssmayr in 1792. Alas, there’s a conspicuous drop in musical interest between Mozart’s Hostias and Süssmayr’s Sanctus and Benedictus. Süssmayr’s Agnus Dei is persuasive, but it’s possible he was working from instructions or sketches left by Mozart. For the closing Communio, Süssmayr reprised the music from Mozart’s own Kyrie.
The discovery in the 1960s of Mozart’s 14-measure sketch for an Amen fugue, probably intended to follow the Lacrimosa, impelled several composers to offer their own completions of the Requiem, including a fleshed-out Amen fugue. The version by the pianist and Mozart scholar Robert Levin gained widest currency, and that was the version the San Antonio Symphony played in the mid-1990s under Christopher Wilkins, in 2001 under Enrique Diemecke, and in 2015 under music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing.
Mr. Danzmayr chose to bring back the Süssmayr completion – a regrettable decision, but forgivable in view of the splendid performance.
The conductor’s clear baton drew taut ensemble from the orchestra and the Mastersingers chorus. Hardly a beat was missed even in Mr. Danzmayr’s speediest tempos. Some of those tempos were very speedy indeed, but mere velocity was never the objective. Often it served to clarify those seamless arcs. His tempo relations, dynamics, and phrasing gave this music a clearly defined musculature and underscored the many telling details he brought out. Just one example: The thrice-sung “Rex,” with which the chorus begins the Rex tremendae, were thunderous and knife-edged, an aural image of the “King of tremendous majesty” whose mercy is reserved for the worthy.
Among the vocal soloists, soprano Ellie Dehn gets top marks for her poise, warmth, and gloss. Her fellows – mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle, tenor Miles Mykkanen, and baritone Alexander Dobson – also made favorable impressions, both individually and in ensembles. The Mastersingers, prepared by the indispensable John Silantien, were in their nimblest and most finely balanced form. Ditto the orchestra, with special props to assistant principal trombone James Seymour for his fine work in the Tuba mirum.
The strings sounded radiant in the Barber Adagio. This music has come to be associated with mourning, but Mr. Danzmayr’s not-so-slow tempo and sensuous, sculptural phrasing made it seem more an expression of abiding love.
The concert’s centerpiece was Kurt Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, with concertmaster Eric Gratz the first-class soloist. Weill is remembered mainly for his stage works – collaborations with the polemical playwright Bertolt Brecht in Germany until the Nazis took power, and, after moving to New York in 1935, with such American luminaries as Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, and Langston Hughes.
Of Weill’s relatively few non-theatrical works, the Violin Concerto, dating from 1924, was the first to gain an enduring place in the repertoire. The voice was not yet fully Weill’s own: Arnold Schoenberg’s influence is palpable in the first movement, and the other two owe much to the acerbic sonorities of Igor Stravinsky’s neoclassical period. But in some ways Weill travels his own road. The middle movement is especially distinctive for its form – a sequence of three argumentative duets pairing the violin with a xylophone, a trumpet, and a flute.
What is left to say in praise of Eric Gratz? He’s just one hell of a fine violinist, nearly flawless in technique and an exciting interpreter. In the concerto, his sweet tone and impeccable pitch made him an ideal foil to the winds, with their pricklier, often dissonant music.
Mr. Danzmayr juggles two jobs, as chief conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic in Croatia and music director of the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio. Zagreb and Columbus are fortunate indeed. Let’s hope we’ll hear from him again.
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