January 17, 2015
Among many reasons to cheer Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s tenure as music director of the San Antonio Symphony is his decision to reconnect the orchestra with its Richard Strauss tradition and, by extension, to honor the legacy of the symphony’s founding music director, Max Reiter, who maintained a long and productive friendship with Strauss.
The linchpin of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary season is a Strauss Festival, joined in by other local institutions. The festival began last week with Opera San Antonio’s staging of “Salome,” a Camerata San Antonio concert that included the String Sextet from “Capriccio” and a panel discussion at the Barshop Jewish Community Center on Strauss’s complicated relationship with the Nazi regime in Germany.
Friday night the symphony under Mr. Lang-Lessing took the stage of the Tobin Center’s H-E-B Performance Hall for the first of four subscription programs featuring music by Strauss. The early tone poem “Death and Transfiguration” (1890) was the centerpiece of a mortality-themed program that opened and closed with Mozart — the overture to “Don Giovanni” and the Requiem in Robert Levin’s performing edition. Providing an ideal forecourt to the Strauss work was American composer Aaron Jay Kernis’s powerful contribution to the orchestra’s series of “American Preludes” commissions.
Strauss, like Mozart, was a man of the theatre, and so is Mr. Lang-Lessing. There was dramatic point in every gesture and phrase of this performance of “Death and Transfiguration,” whose title pretty well sums up the narrative structure. The largo introduction was gorgeously shaped and alive, but it also fully expressed a sense of weariness and enervation that recalled the opening bars of the conductor’s remarkable account of the “Tristan und Isolde” prelude a few seasons ago. The allegro motto section was a blazing struggle, the finale a supremely radiant sunrise. Top-drawer solo work abounded, especially from the woodwinds, and most especially from newly appointed principal oboe Paul Lueders. The hall’s acoustics worked well with the piece — it was nice, for example, to clearly hear the extended tremolos in the double-basses in the measures leading into the allegro molto.
The “American Preludes” composers were asked
for short, 4- or 5-minute hors d’oeuvres. Mr.
Kernis’s “Whisper, Echo and a Cry” exceeded
his charge both in duration (about 10 minutes)
and musical weight (heavy). Like much of his
music, this piece is freighted with emotional
content — Mahlerian yearning in its generally
ascending main theme, woundedness in its
plangent dissonances. The textures are dense
(a little judicious thinning might be in order),
the counterpoint is complex, and there are
some wonderful polyrhythms.
Mozart left his “Requiem” Mass unfinished when he died in 1791. It came to be well known to concert audiences in a version that was completed by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr, with contributions by others. That version was not very “Mozaertean” in a lot of ways, not least in the fact that some of the orchestral parts are frankly boring. Mr. Levin’s edition, first heard in San Antonio in the mid-1990s under Christopher Wilkins, reflects intense study of assorted Mozart sketches passed through Mr. Levin’s own keen stylistic sensibilities. It’s a great improvement — more lithe and nimble, more musical, and equipped with a glorious Amen fugue to cap the Dies Irae sequence.
Mr. Lang-Lessing didn’t try to reinvent the wheel in this performance, but he brought out some carefully wrought details of rhythm (notably the light tread of the Lacrimosa) and articulation. The strings took a while to adjust to the classical aesthetic, but the results were nicely unified and transparent from the Offertorium onward. The Mastersingers chorus, trained by John Silantien, sang with confidence and solid ensemble.
Leading the vocal quartet was soprano Sherezade Panthaki, who impressed with a pure, accurate instrument and ideal classical style. Her excellent colleagues were mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, tenor René Barrera and bass Stephen Powell.
Camerata’s account of the “Capriccio” Sextet, opening a concert Jan. 7 in the Tobin Center’s dryish Alvarez Studio Theater, was rather more robust and red-blooded than might be appropriate in a staging of the last and most delicate of Strauss’s operas. The program closed with a virtuosic performance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s String Sextet in D, which shows strong influence from Strauss and some from Debussy as well. In between came Mozart’s “Hunt” quartet in a performance that was notable for pedal-to-the-metal speed in the outer allegros (did somebody have a plane to catch?), but also for some pointed phrasing in the adagio. The splendid perpetrators were violinists Matthew Zerweck and Anastasia Storer, violists Marisa Bushman and Emily Freudigman, and cellists Kenneth Freudigman and Lachezar Kostov.
The panel on Strauss’s relations with the Nazis was not very illuminating, mostly because there’s not much there to illuminate. His accommodations to the regime were minimal, he regarded the Nazis as barbarians, and they didn’t much care for him, either, but his renown gave him a degree of immunity. He tried desperately (but in vain) to save his son’s Jewish mother-in-law interned at Theresienstadt. He was a friend to many Jewish musical colleagues — including Reiter, who would conduct several American premieres of Strauss works with the San Antonio Symphony. (Their friendship began after the Nazis had won control of Germany and Reiter had found a haven — temporary, as it turned out — in Rome.)
The panel framed a musical interlude, with violinist Sarah Silver and pianist Victoria Choi playing a movement from the Strauss Violin Sonata in E-flat, followed by bass trombonist Ilan Morgenstern playing arrangements of (I’m not making this up) the four songs of Op. 27 — “Ruhe, meine Seele,” “Cäcilie,” "Heimliche Aufforderung" and “Morgen.” Ms. Choi’s introduction to “Morgen” was a marvel of sensitivity and flexibility.