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SA Symphony, Tebar, Chi

New contract! New season! Ding, ding, ding!

October 6, 2012

Having ratified a new -- but hardly shiny -- three-year contract just a few days earlier, the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony returned to the Majestic Theatre stage on Sept. 5 to open a new season with a crowd-pleasing program.

Music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, wearing civvies, made some preconcert remarks, but the man on the podium was guest conductor Ramon Tebar, a Spaniard who has recently been appointed music director of the Florida Grand Opera in Miami. The excellent Canadian pianist Katherine Chi was soloist in the concert’s opening and most substantial work, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s hugely challenging Piano Concerto No. 3.

After intermission, the program reflected Mr. Tebar’s Spanish heritage with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s effervescent “Capriccio espagnol” and his life in the pit with a spate of excerpts, mostly choruses, from operas by Verdi, Falla and Bizet, with the symphony’s volunteer Mastersingers chorus.

Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is a bit less popular than the Second, but the Third is the stronger work -- tauter in structure, fresher in its harmonies, more inventive and often audacious in its rhythms. Its daunting technical demands have been met successfully, and with musicality, only by a select few pianists. Ms. Chi proved a worthy contender. She delivered ample facility, accuracy and power. She wasn’t given to funny business, and the performance was generally lean in character, but not without generous expressive sculpting of lyrical lines. A few passages wanted a more forceful or more colorful personality, but Ms. Chi earned plenty of points for integrity.

Mr. Tebar, who favored a more luxurious approach to Rachmaninoff, did some very nice things with the orchestra -- bringing out the cellos here, the violas there. He and the orchestra filled Rimsky’s showpiece with all the flash and dazzle one could wish. The veteran principal clarinetist, Ilya Shterenberg, astonished once again with a pyrotechnic solo, but there was also some very nice work from two rookies on the roster, principal flutist Martha Long and English horn player Jennifer Berg. Violinist Ignace Jang made a very impressive showing as the evening’s guest concertmaster and a candidate for the vacant chair.

Rimsky is generally regarded as having been a master of orchestration, but I think it fair to complain that he overused the triangle in the “Capriccio espagnol.” By the end of the piece I was getting sick of it. Yet there was still a torrent of the infernal dinging to come in the opera excerpts. The most welcome music of the set, despite its excessive ding-ding-ding, was a group of excerpts from Manuel de Falla’s “La vida breve.” The closer was the chorus that greets the bullfighters (ding-ding-ding) in the last act of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” Giuseppe Verdi was represented by three choruses from “La forza del destino,” two ballets with chorus from “La traviata” (ding-ding-ding) and the “Anvil” chorus from “Il trovatore” (ding-ding-ding, dong-dong-dong).

The performances by the Mastersingers varied in unity and confidence --sometimes strong, sometimes not -- but it's early in the season. Anyway, who can concentrate on singing amid all that dinging?

Mike Greenberg

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