San Antonio Symphony,
A fist in the face of stupidity
May 18, 2013
Dmitri Shostakovich’s harrowing, frequently ugly,
relentlessly pessimistic Symphony No. 8 was given a
performance of merciless power by the San Antonio Symphony
under music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, May 17 in the
If the Shostakovich symphony was a tour of Hell, the program
opened in a a very different clime, with Mozart’s Piano
Concerto No. 22 in E-flat. The distinguished French pianist
Michel Dalberto was the superb soloist.
Shostakovich composed his Eight Symphony quickly in 1943, at
the height of World War II and of Joseph Stalin’s tyranny
over the Soviet Union. It is very likely that the rage and
sorrow permeating the work were motivated more by the latter
than by the former, but in the context of the period a
specific target is almost irrelevant: A huge swath of the
Earth -- the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain,
even France -- had been taken over by thugs and mental
pipsqueaks. This symphony is civilized humanity's fist in
the face of stupidity.
In its emotional weight and even in its thematic material,
the Eighth bears some similarity to the Fifth (1937) and
Seventh (1939-40), but with none of the triumphalism that
made those works acceptable to the Stalinist authorities --
and hugely popular in the West. The Eighth is far more
tough-minded, more layered, bleaker. It screams and cackles,
flails and slashes. Its slow movement offers not even the
consolation of grief, but only a sense of enervated
Orchestra and conductor held nothing back. The
performance was a full-on assault, and a supremely
disciplined one. The discipline was apparent not only in the
orchestra’s ensemble unity and precise timing, but also in a
sound that was appropriate to this music -- not, on the
whole, a beautiful sound, which would have been wrong, but a
sound that cut and pricked and got under the skin.
Top-notch solo work abounded. Jennifer Berg earned special
notice for her control and color sense in the crucial,
extended English horn solo in the first movement. Principal
trumpet John Carroll played brilliantly in the third. A
brief solo for bass clarinet was astonishingly well played
by Rodney Wollam. But the honor roll goes on and on.
Mozart’s K. 482 concerto, dating from late 1785, is
not among his most-often played, but it is among the more
musically ambitious, and especially interesting for its
frequent chamber-music-style interplay. The solo part is
demanding but not showy, and the slow movement is among
Mr. Dalberto’s impeccable technique delivered the goods with
unsurpassed clarity, ideal articulation and string-of-pearls
runs that were almost shockingly even in execution. His
phrasing was personal and flexible, as though he were
communicating an implied text, but never fussy. He summoned
quite a wide color range from the Steinway.
Some might quibble with his choice of cadenzas. Mozart’s own
have not survived, and Mr. Dalberto chose offerings by
Ferruccio Busoni (in the first movement) and Nikita Magaloff
(in the finale). Although Busoni’s, at least, was exciting
on its own souped-up Romantic terms, both yanked the
listener out of Mozart’s aesthetic.
The orchestra was in fine shape for Mozart. The strings
produced a lovely pianissimo to open the slow movement,
which also included a wonderful dialog between flute (Martha
Long) and bassoon (Sharon Kuster).
Mr. Dalberto’s generous encore was the shimmering “Ondine”
from Ravel’s suite “Gaspard de la Nuit,” played with a
distinctly French precision and objectivity.