May 16, 2015
That feast of aural pleasures, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, earned an uncommonly rousing ovation for the San Antonio Symphony and music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing — all hands strutting their stuff — to cap a mostly Austro-Hungarian program May 16 in the Tobin Center.
Bartók’s fellow Hungarian, Zoltán Kodály, was represented by his delightful “Dances of Galanta.” WA Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D closed the first half, with American violinist Jennifer Koh the stylish soloist.
This is Mr. Roumain’s second San Antonio Symphony commission. The first, “Human Songs and Stories for Orchestra, Narrator and The People,” opened the 2002-3 season under Christopher Wilkins. (The narrator was David Robinson.)
The new work, a theme and variations, is notably more ambitious and technically complex, despite its brief seven-minute span. It begins simply enough with a series of descending three-note figures played slowly by the lower strings. The variations introduce a panoply of large-orchestra color effects and highly complex, fine-grained counterpoint. The orchestration is sometimes murky, with too much going on and too little focus — a little editing would help a lot. The piece has good bones.
Ms. Koh’s Mozart seemed informed by classical-period performance practice. She projected a narrow but quite firm tone. She applied minimal vibrato, but she didn’t need more — her sure aim and careful shaping of the sound envelope gave her sound an attractive radiance, especially in her very sweet high register. Her phrasing was emphatic and slightly angular. This was far from the Romanticized Mozart that contemporary audiences might find more familiar, but that’s all to the good. Ms. Koh’s approach cast light on aspects of Mozart’s music that are often neglected.
The Kodály and Bartók works were beautifully assembled. One might have wished for more Hungarian folk character from Mr. Lang-Lessing, who situated both works a bit closer to Vienna than to Budapest, but his tempi were expertly gauged, his sense of line was impeccable, and he made all the dramatic effects hit home. The finale of the Concerto for Orchestra was supremely exhilarating.
The orchestra has never sounded more confident, luxurious and unified. Superb solo work abounded — most notably from principal clarinet Ilya Shterenberg in the Kodály and from principal oboe Paul Lueders, principal flute Martha Long, principal trumpet John Carroll and principal horn Jeff Garza in the Bartók.
This was Mr. Lang-Lessing’s first San Antonio concert since February. The intervening weeks took him to Palermo for a Beethoven concert and to Beijing, where he conducted Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.” He amassed nearly as many miles as principal timpani Peter Flamm, who over the course of the season has wielded his mallets from stage right, left and center, on the floor and on a platform. For this concert his timpani were placed on the floor at stage right, ahead of the percussion and just behind the second violins. (Mr. Lang-Lessing departed from his usual antiphonal seating for this concert.) That location proved nearly ideal — his difficult chromatic passage in the Bartók came across cleanly, without boominess. Moving the percussion from the back row allowed the woodwinds to move farther back toward the rear wall, where (heard from my mezzanine seat) they gained some presence and improved the balance of the whole ensemble.
Where will Mr. Flamm be at the next concert? I’ll check the odds with my bookie and get back to you.Mike Greenberg
A remote Austro-Hungarian link, through the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family, also can be cited for the opening work. American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “Father Antonio’s Contrapuntal Prayers for Michael” continues the orchestra’s remarkable series of 75th-anniversary commissions. The composer’s program note informs us that the title refers to Antonio de Olivares, a Spanish Franciscan who worked peaceably with the Payaya Indians of this region and was instrumental in the founding of Mission San Antonio de Valero at the San Pedro Springs in 1718. (The identity of “Michael” is not revealed.)
Daniel Bernard Roumain led a workshiop for local high-school musicians during his 2002 San Antonio Symphony residency.
San Antonio Symphony, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, Jennifer Koh