Beethoven Festival: SA Symphony
You've heard 'Eroica' before? Nope
January 14, 2012
The symphonies of Beethoven
are well-trod ground, so well-trod that you might think it
would be worn down to bare soil. What, then, is to be gained
from the San Antonio Symphony’s cycle of all nine Beethoven
symphonies in four consecutive programs?
It turns out, if the first of the series is a guide, that
the turf remains thick, springy and fresh. All we needed to
hear it that way was a fundamentalist revival, of a sort,
led by music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing.
He opened the cycle with the First and Third (“Eroica”)
symphonies and the brooding, restless “Coriolan” Overture on
Jan. 13 in a nicely filled Majestic Theatre.
There were no flights of
fancy in these performances, no willful idiosyncrasies,
nothing particularly original to Mr. Lang-Lessing. Yet again
and again, especially in the “Eroica,” the music
sounded new, bristling with energy, scintillating with
unaccustomed details, more lithe and compact and muscular
than before. What was going on?
The answer is disarmingly simple: Mr. Lang-Lessing and the
musicians under his command were paying attention to the
scores. Details of articulation, accent and dynamics, too
often heeded minimally or not at all, were fully, fearlessly
expressed in these performances.
The conductor’s concern for these fundamental details
extended even to the orchestra’s seating arrangement: The
horns, usually seated upstage behind the woodwinds, were
placed on a diagonal behind the first violins and violas for
this concert. The forward, diagonal seating helped the
horns’ bells project more sound, and especially more upper
harmonics, into the audience chamber. Thus the abundant
sforzandi in the finale of the Third, often obscured by the
surrounding texture, blazed with pungency and oomph. It
helped, of course, that this orchestra is blessed with a
terrific horn section.
Of course, it’s possible to
be correct and dull. These performances were correct and
exciting. Mr. Lang-Lessing favored brisk tempi that kept the
architecture well-supported at all times, and his pointed
rhythms maintained the spirit of dance that pervades so much
of Beethoven’s music.
The orchestra responded with clean ensemble and very
spirited playing all around. Notable individual
contributions came from timpanist Peter Flamm, oboist Mark
Ackerman and guest concertmaster Jun Yi Ma, borrowed from
Mr. Lang-Lessing’s Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. The
violinist played with such astonishing precision as to cast
doubt on the moral superiority of borrowing over outright