The first “half” of last night’s performance of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall with Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) on the podium was a memorable delight. I use the scare quotes because this portion of that concert lasted a mere twenty minutes. The intermission was followed by Anton Bruckner’s seventh symphony in E minor, which lasted over an hour.
The highlight of that first “half” was soprano Nadine Sierra’s debut performance with SFS. Sierra is no stranger to San Francisco. As I observed in my preview article, she recently completed her tenure as an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera, concluding her time in San Francisco with a “farewell” recital in the form of a “Salon” performance at the Hotel Rex under the auspices of San Francisco Performances. I have thus been fortunate enough to experience her vocal skills in both the War Memorial Opera House and the intimacy of the Rex “salon” room, as well as the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason, where she gave a delightful account of Adina in a Merola Opera Program production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore.
Her sense of sincere dramatism combined with a lightness of touch in that production served her well last night in Davies. She sang two arias from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 344, the two-act Singspiel Zaide that Mozart never completed. The more familiar of these was “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben” (rest gently, my dear life), which occurs early in the first act. It is a gentle lullaby with some killer leaps that exceed an octave. Sierra glided through these technical demands without ever compromising the music’s soothing rhetoric, given just the right subtlety of support from the reduced SFS resources. This was followed by the far more dramatic “Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen” (Tiger! Sharpen your claws). In this aria Mozart reinforced the intensity of the “vengeance” text with skillful instrumental coloration from both brass and winds, all deftly balanced against Sierra’s assertive voice by MTT’s direction. The two arias were introduced by an orchestral version of the opera’s opening chorus (since Mozart never wrote an overture).
The Bruckner symphony for the remainder of the program made for a sharp contrast with the Mozart selections. Each of those Mozart pieces was a gem of brevity, while, as already observed, Bruckner’s four-movement symphony generally lasts more than an hour. Each movement is an expansive landscape in its own right; and, while each movement has its own intensive climax, that climax is always approached steadily but gradually. MTT conducted from the 1944 edition of the score in which Robert Haas worked as much as possible from Bruckner’s 1883 autograph. This precedes subsequent revisions made after the premiere performance in 1884, revisions that were incorporated in the first published edition of 1885.
The one obvious adjustment to the Haas edition took place in the second Adagio movement. As I mentioned in my preview piece, Bruckner was aware that Richard Wagner was dying while he was working on this movement. This would account for his adding four Wagner tubas to the instrumentation, along with an extended part for bass tuba. There also appears to be the calculated occurrence of the climax at rehearsal letter W, which strongly connotes the opening of the heaven’s to receive Wagner’s spirit. (Others were probably less generous in their thoughts of where that spirit was headed.) Haas removed the cymbal part (along with the accompanying triangle), probably under the assumption that there was no good reason for those musicians to sit through the entire symphony for the sake of that one gesture. MTT restored the cymbal and triangle parts, and there was no arguing with their effectiveness.
Most important, however, is that MTT always moderated his control of dynamics in the interest of making sure that each movement’s climax registered with full impact. This included the scherzo movement in which, because of the da capo form, the climax occurs twice. MTT took this movement at a relatively brisk tempo, which facilitated his repeating the opening section in a new dramatic light informed by the more introspective middle section. Through this interpretation, it was clear that the “real” climax was the one concluding the repeated section (and the movement itself).
Last night’s concert was dedicated to the memory of Principal Oboist William Bennett, who died yesterday morning. The performance of the Bruckner was preceded by a moment of silence to honor that memory. In addition, at the beginning of the evening, MTT reflected on Bennett’s joining SFS in 1979. He talked about the joy of the ongoing flow of new talent, taking that positive note as the basis for introducing Sierra to the Davies audience. The expanse of the Bruckner symphony encouraged us all to dwell on the passing of time and the arrivals and departures that occur in the course of that flow.