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San Antonio Symphony, Lang-Lessing, Dalberto

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 Majestic Theatre.

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 resignation.

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 Mozart’s deepest.

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.

Mike Greenberg