Last night’s Main Stage Concert by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO), conducted by Benjamin Simon in Herbst Theatre, was entitled Dance Suite. The program was framed by two orchestral works whose movements were structured around the dance forms of the seventeenth century, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1067 orchestral suite in B minor (the second of his set of four) and the string orchestra version of Edvard Grieg’s retrospective suite for piano Fra Holbergs tid (from Holberg’s time). Between these two pieces were two concertante offerings featuring different soloists, John Corigliano’s “Voyage” for solo violin and string orchestra, featuring SFCO concertmaster Robin Sharp, and the world premiere of a concerto for guitar and string orchestra, written on an SFCO commission by Michael Gilbertson (who happens to have studied with Corigliano). The guitar soloist was Benjamin Pila.
It turned out that both of the suites provided many of their own opportunities for significant solo turns. The string orchestra for BWV 1067 was joined by a single flute (Mindy Rosenfeld), whose part frequently doubled the first violin but took over the spotlight for the Double portion of the Polonaise movement. This solo is a highly embellished version of the Polonaise in which the flute is accompanied only by the continuo, which is responsible for stating the theme being embellished. Since the SFCO did not have a period-appropriate continuo section, that responsibility was taken by first chair cellist Robert Howard.
In its entirety the suite was given a brisk interpretation by Simon, consistent with the “dance spirit” of the movements, regardless of how little we know about the actual dance steps of the time. Simon also managed his chamber orchestra resources to bring out the details of Bach’s intricate counterpoint, details that are often buried by the presence of too many instruments. In particular, there were some judicious decisions in having certain passages performed by individual instruments, giving the suite a period-appropriate concerto grosso feel.
That resulting transparency of texture also highlighted Simon’s approach to the Grieg suite. The selection of movements may have honored the formal structures that Bach used, but the harmonies were decidedly nineteenth-century. There is also a fair amount of preference for homophony over polyphony, allowing those harmonies to emerge through rich textures of multiple voices “in chorus.” Grieg takes some innovative approaches to allocating those voices to the different string instruments, a technical skill that Simon featured in the SFCO New Year’s concert with the performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s ninth sinfonia in C major. However, while the Mendelssohn sinfonia was distinguished for its emergent spatial qualities, the Grieg movements impressed through the breadth of sonorities achieved through his keen sense of instrumentation and Simon’s execution of the resulting score.
Sonority was also a critical element in Corigliano’s “Voyage.” If the Grieg suite was an orchestration of solo piano music, “Voyage” was an instrumental version of music originally composed for a cappella choir. In that form the music was a setting of Richard Wilbur’s translation of “L’invitation au voyage” (invitation to the voyage) from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (flowers of evil). Corigliano was struck by Baudelaire’s ability to evoke sensuous images through his words, which inspired him to seek out that same kind of imagery through music. The composition is short and highly atmospheric, but one is quickly drawn into its sensuous qualities. Both Simon and Sharp recognized this as music based on essence and performed an interpretation that captured the delicacy behind the subtle suggestion (rather than statement) of image-like qualities.
Gilbertson’s guitar concerto, on the other hand, was much more down-to-earth, perhaps too much so. Each of his movements was based on the foundation of some key structural concept; and, since the concept of the second movement was a chaconne, it could be seen as a reflection on the structures that had occupied Bach’s creative mind. However, while the score was rich in imaginative design, it left the impression of being short on rhetoric, as if getting the marks onto the paper had been all that mattered. Most importantly, each of the concerto’s three movements had little sense of pace, continuing to work over its material long after that material had established its point for being there. The result was that both Pila and Simon came up with a dutiful execution, which had little impact or lasting memory. Fortunately, memorability sustained the rest of the program, particularly through the diversity of sonorities coming from the SFCO strings.