March 30, 2019
The week closed in the realm of the senses, the hedonic-erotic pleasures of the Italian way of music and life, courtesy of the San Antonio Symphony, music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, and lyric tenor David Portillo, who commands one of the most flat-out beautiful voices on the planet.
The week began in the heaving and sloshing molten core of human experience, with a Camerata San Antonio concert comprising three Beethoven string quartets, in performances that can best be described as, well, Beethovenian. Pleasures, yes, but more of the mind and spirit than of the flesh.
Mr. Portillo is a native of San Antonio (Holmes High School, UTSA) who now is enjoying the full bloom of a major international opera career. His March 29 appearance with the symphony fell between Idemeneo at Teatro Real in Madrid and Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met in New York. Last September he was superb as Alfredo Germont in Opera San Antonio’s production of La traviata. His program here included bel canto staples by Rossini and Donizetti, plus lush arrangements of Neapolitan songs.
Portillo proved to be the total package. His instrument was bright, youthful, and rounded, with no rough patches. His control enabled rock-steady sustained notes and perfect landings on pitch – most impressively in “Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de tête!” (from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment), with its passel of high Cs. His rhythm was impeccable, as was his diction. A true singing actor, he brought wonderful vivacity to Rossini’s tarantella “La danza” and Tosti’s popular “A marechiare,” and affecting heartbreak to “Una furtiva lagrima” – as beautiful an account as I’ve heard – from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Rossini’s “Se il mio rival,” from Il turco in italia, demanded a stratospheric sustained note – a high D? – that Mr. Portillo could not deliver comfortably, but aside from those few seconds his singing was as natural and effortless as breathing.
Something else worth mentioning: Mr. Portillo exemplifies a specifically American approach to singing – and the training of singers. The style is agile, communicative and direct, with none of the scoops and affectations that make so many of the great singers of the past almost unlistenable today in recordings. The Golden Age of Italian opera? It’s right now in the United States.
The orchestra had an exceptional evening. The strings sounded radiant in intermezzos from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Puccini’s Manon lescaut, the latter with a lovely solo by principal cello Ken Freudigman. Throughout the concert the orchestra attaind a new high in ensemble precision and teamwork. The overture to Rossini’s La gazza ladra opened with a crispness that seemed almost Teutonic, and the same standard held through the overture to Verdi’s I vespri siciliani, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival overture and Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien.
Mr. Lang-Lessing, a product of the opera house as much as of the concert hall, showed an intuitive, fully organic understanding of the supple Italian pulse in the opera selections. He brought out all the vivid colors in Berlioz and Tchaikovsky, and his pacing was ideal throughout.
With the possible exception of the orchestra’s founder, Max Reiter, no music director in this orchestra’s history has advanced its artistic standard as far as Sebastian Lang-Lessing. He has announced that next season will be has last as music director (he will remain in an emeritus role). We’ll be sorry to see him go, but grateful for a magnificent ride.
Beethoven’s string quartets are pretty much the Himalayas of the genre, and Camerata San Antonio’s previous expeditions up those craggy slopes – a go-for-broke “Grosse Fuge” in 2017 still lingers in memory – augured well for this concert at the University of the Incarnate Word. The program held string quartets from Beethoven’s early, middle, and late periods – the somewhat Mozartean Op. 18, No. 3 in D, the highly concentrated Op. 95 in F Minor (“Serioso”), and the lyrical-with-twists Op. 127 in E-flat.
As we’ve come to expect, the performances were bold and intense, characterized by forceful accents and big dynamic contrasts. The faster and more impetuous movements were a little unkempt, as they should be in Beethoven: In the third movement of the “Serioso,” with its furious attacks and slashing accents, the players retained some individuality of expression, suggesting four friends engaged in earnest conversation. When a more unified sound was called for, as in the molto cantabile second movement of Op. 127, Camerata complied with a rich blend and gorgeous chordings.
The players – all first-class musicians making up a first-class team – were violinists Anastasia Parker and Matthew Zerweck, violist Emily Freudigman, and cellist Ken Freudigman.
David PortilloPhoto: Simon Pauly
Camerata San Antonio: Matthew Zerweck and Anastasia Parker, violins; Emily Freudigman, viola; Ken Freudigman, cello.