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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 theft.

Mike Greenberg

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