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Beethoven Festival: San Antonio Symphony

In an old friend, unexpected charms

January 28, 2012

If hollers were dollars, the San Antonio Symphony would be wealthy beyond measure after the wildly enthusiastic reception for Beethoven’s congenial Sixth (“Pastoral”) and Seventh symphonies, Jan. 27 in the Majestic Theatre. The concert, played for a near capacity crowd, was the third installment in the orchestra’s traversal of all nine Beethoven symphonies under music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

As in the two previous outings, the performances were fluid and richly detailed, with fully expressed dynamics and pointed rhythms. The ensemble sound was again luxurious but transparent, with radiant strings and integrated textures.
Mr. Lang-Lessing likes to get a big sound from the double-basses and bring them forward from the aural shadows more boldly than his predecessors did. In all the Beethoven symphonies thus far, and especially in the rustic third movement of the “Pastoral,” the newly fanged double-basses contributed much to the piquancy and gusto of the performances.

Although the entire program was exceptionally well crafted, the calm second movement of the “Pastoral,” titled “Scene by the Brook,” is worth special mention for Mr. Lang-Lessing’s extraordinary care with dynamics and tempo. The gentle flow and the rippling waves were almost palpable, and the subtle rise and fall of individual voices within the overall texture revealed unexpected loveliness in music that we’ve heard many times. Purists might find fault with the Romanticism of this approach -- it reminded me a little of conductor Christoph Eschenbach’s painterly shading of Wagner’s “Parsifal” years ago at Houston Grand Opera -- but, in my book, seduction trumps chastity.

Principal oboe Mark Ackerman, who all this season has been playing more beautifully than ever, shone in both symphonies. Splendid work also came from Jeff Garza (horn), Ilya Shterenberg (clarinet), Sharon Kuster (bassoon) and Peter Flamm (timpani).

The Beethoven cycle concludes Feb. 10 and 11 with the Eighth and Ninth symphonies.

Mike Greenberg