June 7, 2015
There was a deluge at the Tobin Center on June 5. The HEB Performance Hall was awash in sumptuous, lavishly orchestrated melody, courtesy of the San Antonio Symphony and maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing. Small wonder, given the agenda of Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt" Suites I and 2, Aleksandr Borodin's glistening “Polovtsian Dances" and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s cinematic “Scheherazade.”
If there were dissonances, even the briefest passing tone or minor second, they were essentially undiscernable. Well, there were a few in some of the angular material of “Rio Grande,” by Grammy award-winning composer Michael Daugherty (whose dramatic “Fire and Blood” violin concerto was performed here several years ago).The vividly evocative score about Texas was the last of 14 short works commissioned this season in honor of the orchestra's 75th anniversary.
Sometimes sweeping, sometimes prickly, the piece recalls the landscape and canyons along the meandering river, primarily in the Big Bend area. It involves varied and innovative rhythms and percussion, a leaping three-note figure that ping-pongs among the sections, and includes echoes of a ghostly mariachi tune. Orchestration ranges from translucent to luxurient, all within eight exhilarating minutes.
All of the other works were programmatic, that is, drawn from or illustrating some sort of story. Given their extravagant tunes and exotic orchestrations, there was a definite risk of one's shoes sticking to the floor upon exiting the hall. But that would involve a different conductor. Mr. Lang-Lessing found ways to reveal unexpected colors and textures in each of the scores, as well as a seemingly endless dynamic scope. There were moments in the Grieg – Suite II, "Solvieg's Song," for example -- when the playing remained intense and burnished despite being breathtakingly hushed.
Grieg's “Peer Gynt” was originally written as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s picaresque play, resulting in a four-hour slog through a fairy-tale landscape of mystical creatures and adventures. The play is rarely produced, but Grieg condensed the music into two immensely popular suites. As to the best-loved of the movements, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Grieg hated what he had felt obliged to do with it, comparing it to, um, cow-pies. Nonetheless in an 1889 review, George Bernard Shaw pronounced it a “riotous piece of weird fun.” So there.
Mr. Lang-lessing's carefully considered approach, which turned a war-horse into a brash young filly, was met with obvious affection and enthusiasm by the musicians. It was a pleasure to note that at its conclusion, many of them joined the applauding audience with their own clattering bows or tapping feet.
The “Polovtsian Dances” are the best known parts of Borodin's opera, “Prince Igor.” He died before its completion, but his friends Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexandr Glazunov gathered up his sketches and finished it. In 1953, the Dances were used for the score to the musical “Kismet,” featuring the familiar “Stranger in Paradise.”
The Borodin's exotism paired perfectly with that of the concluding “Scheherazade.” Both are orchestral showcases allowing virtually every section to shine. Most of the principal players have important solos, especially the concertmaster. The maestro elicited much of the remembered opulence and sultriness that defined the orchestra's reading of the work in October, 2011.
Concertmaster Eric Gratz was the elegant, eloquent voice of Scheherazade as she wove the cliffhanger tales that kept her misogynistic husband, the sultan, intrigued enough to keep her alive for one more, and yet another night, up to 1001 of them. Throughout, section principals and others offered impressive solo and duet work.
All that lush music, all evening long, and nobody drowned or lost a shoe because it was stuck in a syrupy goo. Go figure. We suspect it was a combination of a masterful conductor and exceptionally responsive musicians who were further buoyed by the happy news that a new contract has been negotiated.
Name that tune
Peer Gynt with the Mountain King
Composer Michael Daugherty on a 2009 road trip across America.