incident light

San Antonio Symphony, Masur, Zhou


March 24, 2012

A highly colorful, dramatic program with an exotic bent brought the return of two local favorites to the San Antonio Symphony, March 23 in the Majestic Theatre.

Ken-David Masur, this orchestra’s resident conductor for four seasons before moving on to the heavily endowed San Diego Symphony last year, was on the podium. The guest violinist was Nancy Zhou, who attended Keystone School, earned notice as a member of the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio, participated in regional and international competitions and last fall began studies at both Harvard University and the New England Conservatory of Music.

Ms. Zhou last appeared with the orchestra in 2010, when she played the
demanding Sibelius concerto. For her return, she was the soloist in two compact but meaty works -- John Corigliano’s “The Red Violin” Chaconne, drawn from his score for the 1998 film, and Maurice Ravel’s Gypsy-inspired showpiece, “Tzigane.”

In both works, she proved an agile technician and an intense, passionate musician. She produced a big, rich, somewhat cool tone (an interesting contrast with former concertmaster Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio’s deep warmth in the Corigliano piece in 2005). Her pitch accuracy was astonishing, especially in the high register where every note landed squarely and was solidly sustained. Her strong double-stops, plucky pizzicati and insinuating pitch inflections in “Tzigane” indicated an artist of rare and fully earned self-confidence.

Corigliano’s film score for “The Red Violin” called for solo violin with string orchestra. The Chaconne, bringing in winds and percussion on steroids, is very nearly a concerto for orchestra. Based on an ascending motif that sometimes appears menacing, sometimes yearning, sometimes hopeful, the music often breaks into splashes or violent paroxysms of color from every corner of the orchestra. Mr. Masur kept everything in precise control, and the performance was virtuosic all around.

The orchestra opened with a crisp and seamless account of Ottorino Respighi’s neoclassical “Ancient Airs and Dances.”

The biggest work of the evening was Franz Liszt’s “Dante" Symphony, an evocation of the “Inferno” and “Purgatory” from Dante’s “Comedy.”  (Boccaccio pronounced the poem “divine,” and the characterization stuck, but it’s not properly part of the work’s name.) Harmonically and formally progressive for its time (1857), Liszt’s music pulls all the Romantic stops, beginning in ominous low-brass shadows and ending in a sublime Magnificat with a halo of angelic voices -- here impersonated by the excellent Children’s Chorus of San Antonio, prepared by Marguerite McCormick.

Mr. Masur showed a flair for the big theatrical gestures in “Inferno,” but his penchant for precision made the lyrical and humane passages come off a little stiffly. Still, it was nice to hear the big fugue in “Purgatory” so tautly controlled.

Notably fine solo work came from John Carroll (trumpet), Mark Ackerman (oboe), Ken Freudigman (cello) and Bonnie Terry in the Respighi; and from Mr. Ackerman and Hideaki Okada (English horn) in Liszt. The whole percussion section did a bang-up job in Corigliano.

Mike Greenberg