September 22, 2018
The San Antonio Symphony opened a new season Friday night in the Tobin Center with a glorious evening of contrasts – venerable and new, hot and cool, splendid and, um, splendider.
The orchestra and music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing were at the top of their game, as was André Watts, the soloist in Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto. The main event was the emotional roller-coaster of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, in a stunning performance. The evening was bookended by pieces titled Masquerade – the opener from 2013 by Anna Clyne, the encore from 1906 by Carl Nielsen.
Mr. Watts was introduced to a national television audience at age 16, when he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein on one of the conductor’s legendary Young People’s Concerts. The pianist was an immediate sensation and has been a staple of the concert circuit ever since. At his best he combined limitless technique with insight, taste and an elegant touch – bravura without bravado.
His most recent previous appearance with this orchestra, in March 2006, found him a little off his stride: In the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto, his touch was more percussive, his phrasing more heated than I had remembered from earlier performances. In retrospect, the problem may have been the dry and harsh acoustics of the Majestic Theater. In the warm resonance of the Tobin Center’s H-E-B Performance Hall, the classic Watts sound was in full bloom – ample clean power and well supported delicacy, as the occasion demanded, and a touch like a shower of rose petals. This was an admirably lucid performance. Mr. Watts perfectly gauged the dramatic arc of the first movement’s big cadenza. The adagio was a diaphanous dream, introduced by gorgeous sound from the strings. The rollicking finale was an example of Mr. Watts’ proclivity for patrician poise – his playing here was a little too tame when spice was called for. But one can’t complain about his undiminished technical agility, accuracy and clarity.
Every fan of classical music knows Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony almost by heart. Most have heard it played multiple times.
Well, actually … no, they haven’t. I rather doubt that anyone in the world ever heard the Tchaikovsky Fifth before Sept. 21, 2018, when Mr. Lang-Lessing conducted the bejeepers out of it and the San Antonio Symphony responded with kick-ass playing from all corners.
The same team had essayed the same work as recently as 2011, in a good but not especially memorable performance in the Majestic. This time around, Mr. Lang-Lessing’s billowing dynamics and superb tempo relations extracted every bit of drama the score had to offer – and more than dramatic effect, an inexorable momentum within each movement and across the novelistic structure as a whole. Some of the tempos were uncommonly fast, especially in the last two movements. In the waltz, the strings executed the rapid sixteenth-not runs with astonishing precision despite tempo that was definitely faster than the specified allegro moderato. The final allegro vivace was in presto territory, with results that were breathtakingly giddy, but also seamlessly coherent.
Born in London (1980) but now living in the United States, Anna Clyne has been racking up a lot of international attention, including commissions from orchestras on four continents. Her Masquerade was commissioned by the BBC for the 2013 Last Night of the Proms, by long tradition an occasion for equal parts ribaldry and patriotic sentiment. Masquerade falls into the former camp, though with some nods to the latter. The style of this five-minute thrill ride has roots in the hyper-romantic lushness, textural complexity and slippery harmonies of Richard Strauss, and there are also direct and indirect references to English and Irish folk material. But Ms. Clyne’s voice is distinctly her own, expressed in oozing slides in the strings, flashes of nuttiness (the instrumentation includes a kazoo and a car horn), a richly developed color palette and a capacity to surprise at every turn. Mr. Lang-Lessing and the orchestra crafted a glistening performance, fully matched by Nielsen’s exuberant overture at concert’s end.
The week opened with an extraordinary season opener by Camerata San Antonio, Sept. 16 in the Luella Bennack Music Center at the University of the Incarnate Word. Pianist Viktor Valkov joined Camerata string quartet regulars Matthew Zerweck (violin) and Ken Freudigman (cello) in music by Schumann, Beethoven and Mendelssohn.
The performances were consistently taut, red-blooded, muscular and huge, the kind that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go till the end. This approach was especially well suited to the emotional excess of Schumann in his innocently titled Five Pieces in Folk Style, for cello and piano, and it brought an extra frisson to the boundless energy and freshness of Beethoven’s early Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in D. But even the goody-goody Mendelssohn benefited from the bad-boy treatment: In the Piano Trio in C Minor, the players flung out 120 percent of the first movement’s excitement quotient; the scherzo flew so fast it seemed to end before it started; and the finale was full of explosive energy. Yet the players brought a wonderful depth of feeling to the andante. Mike Greenberg
Camerata San Antonio’s Matthew Zerweck (violin), Viktor Valkov (piano) and Ken Freudigman (cello).