In the Warsaw Ghetto, German soldiers lead captured Jews to an assembly point for transport to concentration camps and likely death.
Adedeji Bailes Ogunfolu
September 19, 2015
The human story: We aspire to Heaven, but too often we create Hell. Or, put another way, we create Hell and from its flames we aspire all the more fervently to Heaven. We are strange creatures.
The San Antonio Symphony under music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing opened its 76th season on Sept. 18 in the Tobin Center with a pair of works that, together, trace the trajectory from Hell to Heaven. The concert opened with Arnold Schoenberg’s harrowing A Survivor from Warsaw, a 1947 work whose text, delivered by a narrator in a hybrid of speech and song, recounts the horrific experience of a man who survived the Nazis’ extermination of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Then, without intermission, came Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a journey that begins in troubled agitation and ends in luminous joy.
Erich Leinsdorf was probably the first conductor to pair the two works, for his 1969 valedictory concert as music director of the Boston Symphony. Michael Gielen followed suit in Cincinnati in 1986, and the practice has become almost standard in recent years.
The two works are related psychologically – Beethoven was reacting to the dashing of hopes for political liberalization and democratization in Europe — but also musically. A great admirer of Beethoven, Schoenberg regarded his own 12-tone system as a means to achieve in Modernist terms the freedom within coherent structure that Beethoven achieved in Classical terms.
The sound worlds are, of course, very different. Schoenberg’s music for the orchestra, true to the circumstances related by the text, gnaws and needles, punches and sears. It is often ugly, but always theatrically astute. Near the end, the entrance of the men’s chorus singing the “Sh’ma,”the prayer that is emblematic of Jewish identity, stands among the most powerful moments in 20th-century music.
Mr. Lang-Lessing led a meticulous performance of the Schoenberg. The orchestral playing was sure-footed, and the men of the Mastersingers (prepared by John Silantien) sang with great clarity and conviction. Bass-baritone Alan Held, remembered for his stirring performance in Dvorak’s Rusalka two seasons ago, was dramatically persuasive and fully comfortable with the difficult vocal style.
Ideally, Beethoven’s Ninth should follow without pause. In this performance, the applause after the Schoenberg and the brief wait for the vocal soloists to take their seats in the front row of the Mastersingers undercut the effectiveness of the pairing.
From my seat in the balcony, orchestral ensemble sounded imprecise throughout the first two movements of the Beethoven, but my colleague Diane Windeler reports no such problem from her seat in the mezzanine. Perhaps the longer resonance in the balcony muddied the sound, most notably of the strings in the scherzo. (I’d listened a few times from the balcony last season and found the acoustics superb — resonant and enveloping but clean. The difference at this concert may be attributable to the use of the full-depth orchestra shell, to accommodate the chorus.)
At any rate, the adagio sounded glorious, the strings silken and substantial but transparent, with especially nice work from the second violins and violas. Mr. Lang-Lessing maintained a feeling of cool serenity, a perfect counterpoise to the hubbub of the scherzo and the fever of the opening allegro. The orchestra played crisply in the finale, and Mr. Lang-Lessing’s tempo relations were, as usual, gauged for maximum drama.
The soloists all earned high marks. Soprano Marcy Stonikas floated glistening highs. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby impressed with her warmth and auburn coloration. Tenor John Robert Lindsey was appealing for the limpid youthfulness of his voice. Mr. Held was splendid, although — a minor quibble — the bright, lithe character of his instrument didn’t match the gruffness and muscularity that Mr. Lang-Lessing demanded of the lower strings in their anticipation of the baritone’s “O! Freunde” declamation.
The full Mastersingers chorus left nothing to be desired. In the orchestra, excellent solo work came from all the usual suspects, plus one: Fourth horn Adedeji Bailes Ogunfolu earned the first solo bow for his outstanding account of a famous passage, originally written for natural horn, in the third movement.