As I reported last summer, this is the “auditioning” season for the Conservatory Orchestra of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The season was planned so that each of the five concerts would be conducted by a different candidate for the position of the new Music Director. Unfortunately, my own schedule has not allowed me to experience all of the candidates. However, last night I made it to the fourth concert, whose conductor was Scott Sandmeier.
Sandmeier structured his program in the traditional overture-concerto-symphony form. However, what most caught my attention was his symphony selection, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 54 in B minor (the sixth). I have had the good fortune to hear this symphony in performance several times (most recently in May of 2012 with Osmo Vänskä conducting the San Francisco Symphony); and I find that I listen to it frequently on recordings. It is a rather peculiar composition, but I have found rewards in reflecting in those peculiarities.
The most significant peculiarity is the bipolar structure. The opening Largo movement accounts for over half the entire duration. This is followed by an Allegro scherzo that is over before you know it and then leads into an even faster Presto.
The first movement may be appreciated through the influence of Gustav Mahler. While there are no literal references (such as may be found in some of the other symphonies), Mahler’s spirit is acknowledged at the very beginning with an opening unaccompanied melodic line whose darkness recalls the opening of Mahler’s tenth symphony. That darkness then unfolds through a series of themes, each given rich prolongation and diverse approaches to instrumentation. The remaining movements then hit like a jolt, and the coda for the final movement sounds as if it escaped from a Warner Brothers cartoon.
It would thus be unfair to say that Sandmeier conducted this symphony with a firm sense of balance. The trick is to accept its unbalanced quality and then give its erratic nature a convincing account. This requires clear vision from the conductor and a solid bond between conductor and orchestra. Last night’s performance was blessed with both of these assets, making for a thoroughly memorable account of music that runs the risk of leaving unfamiliar listeners scratching their heads.
From an architectural point of view, the symphony made for an abrupt shift from the concerto, which was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 piano concerto in G major (the fourth). This composition is so well known for its structural integrity that it is hard to imagine anyone getting a degree in music without at least one experience of analyzing it to death. While this makes for a valuable education, it also tends to be a major factor in encouraging what I have called “Beethoven-the-monument” thinking, thinking that is more obsessed with “artifacts of greatness” than with the basic nuts-and-bolts of making music.
Last night’s soloist was SFCM graduate student Chien-Lin Lu. He performed with a solid command of technique. It would be fair to say that his personal vision of this concerto is still a work-in-progress; but, in last night’s performance, he did not allow that vision to be clouded by an excess of “monument mythology.” He appreciated the technical challenges posed by the score, but he came on stage with a clear sense of how to deal with them. That clarity also made him an effective partner for Sandmeier as the two of them negotiated the myriad relationships established between soloist and ensemble. Most striking were those passages of elaborate embellishment that accompany thematic statements from the orchestra and Lu’s ability to find the right balance to serve both the theme and the embellishment.
Sandmeier’s overture selection was “The Hebrides,” Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 26. In many respects this music gives the impression of a soundtrack for a panorama. Mendelssohn uses instrumentation particularly successfully as a device for calling attention to those “visual” features. Sandmeier chose tempos that were suitable for “panoramic scan,” while balancing his resources to call attention to Mendelssohn’s command of sonorities. This was an overture to introduce an evening of serious listening, a promise that was more than generously fulfilled with the remainder of the program.