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Scott Sandmeier brings Charles Ives to the Conservatory Orchestra

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Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Scott Sandmeier conducted the final program in his debut season as Music Director of the Conservatory Orchestra. It would probably be accurate to say that he planned the season to go out with a bang, as there were several major detonations following the intermission. Those in the 1919 suite that Igor Stravinsky prepared from the score he had composed for Michel Fokine’s ballet “The Firebird” could probably be called metaphorical; but in “The General Slocum,” Charles Ives wished to create a musical description of the last voyage of an excursion boat in New York, which was totally destroyed when a fire in the engine room got out of control.

“The General Slocum” was one of two pieces performed last night that Ives never completed and never progressed beyond preliminary (but heavily annotated) sketches. The other, “Yale-Princeton Football” similarly described a major Yale sports victory that took place on November 20, 1897. Sandmeier conducted both of these works from performing versions prepared by Gunther Schuller. Because both of them involved an almost clinical approach to description through music, Sandmeier prefaced the performance by summarizing what was being described and having the ensemble play illustrative examples.

The result was a thoroughly absorbing account of Ives in a totally raucous state of wild abandon. Ives approached description more like a painter than like a writer, meaning that many things happen at once in each of these pieces, just as a single canvas can confront the eye with a broad variety of events, not all of which may be directly related. If all this sounds chaotic, it is meticulously calculated chaos; and Sandmeier approached it with the necessary discipline, whether it involved the scurrying trumpets depicting Charlie deSaulles’ mad dash down the field to score the winning touchdown or the inferno that brought a pleasure boat ride to a tragic end. In the latter case, however, the intensity was all the greater for the silence that followed, in which one heard the faint sound of a single violin (first chair second desk in the First Violin section) playing “Nearer my God to Thee.” Ives clearly took these experiments in description seriously, even if he never completed them to his satisfaction in his lifetime.

Stravinsky’s “big bang,” on the other hand, begins a critical episode in the narrative of “The Firebird,” in which the title character leads Kashchei the Immortal and the horde of hideous creatures that serve him in an ”Infernal Dance,” calculated to exhaust Kashchei into a deep sleep. The dance begins with a violent thud from the bass drum, after which the primary theme is introduced by the low brass. As the thematic material works its way through the entire ensemble, one quickly appreciates Stravinsky’s skillful use of instrumentation to enhance the visual qualities of the ballet’s narrative. That gift is just as evident in the other movements of this suite; but the “Infernal Dance” always provides the moments that remain in memory.

Sandmeier took an excellently-paced journey through that suite, presenting each episode in terms of its significance to the overall narrative and concluding with the final wedding scene, all of which is built on a single simple motif, repeated with little variation other than the gradual accumulation of instrumental resources and dynamic level. This is music that has become familiar to just about all serious concert-goers. However, for all of that familiarity, Sandmeier evoked a fresh immediacy in the performance by the Conservatory Orchestra that could not have been a more satisfying conclusion to his first season.

Once again, conducting student Tyler Catlin (’15) shared the podium with Sandmeier, leading the opening selection on the program, Carl Maria von Weber’s overture for his opera Oberon. This was a crisp, well-paced, and well-balanced account of the thematic material Weber had extracted to introduce his listeners to the opera that would follow. Clarity was of the essence, whether in the solo horn that opens the overture or in the abundance of fast-paced passages for the full string section. Catlin clearly established an effective channel of communication with the ensemble, making for a reading of Weber that was as refreshing as Sandmeier’s reading of Stravinsky.

The only weak portion of the evening came when Weber’s overture was followed by a fantasy on themes from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen scored for double bass and orchestra and composed by Frank Proto. This featured a solo performance by TianYang Liu (’13). Liu was certainly impressive, particularly when dealing with the many virtuoso turns that Proto (also a bass player) conceived. However, the overall rhetoric of the score was one of slick and superficial Vegas entertainment. There is the possibility that Proto had intended this to be a satirical view of popular culture, with the bass providing the same level of “comic commentary” that one often encounters in the work of the pioneering bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini; but that possibility never emerged in last night’s almost entirely straight-faced interpretation.

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