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The son outshines the father at the first Bach program at Davies Symphony Hall

Ton Koopman's baton-free heartfelt conducting style
by Giulio Rasi, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

This afternoon Ton Koopman conducted the San Francisco Symphony in the first of four performances of the first week of programming devoted to the music and legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach. The program was actually pretty evenly divided between “Bach the father” and “Bach the son,” the latter being Carl Philipp Emanuel; and, on the whole, “Bach the son” fared the better of the two. Considering that this is the year of Emanuel’s 300th birthday (which took place this past March 8), it should not have been surprising that he should receive more of the “glory, praise, and honor” (to borrow some words from a chorale set by Sebastian); but it was still a bit regrettable that only one of the two compositions by Sebastian really shined.

The two compositions by Emanuel were taken from each of his two major periods. The intermission was preceded by his Wq 172 cello concerto in A major, composed in 1753 during his service to Frederick the Great in Berlin; and it was followed by the last (fourth) of the Wq 183 symphonies (in G major), composed in Hamburg in 1776. As I have previously observed, Emanuel brought a “vigorous level of energy” to his ensemble writing; and this was as evident in the Hamburg period as it had been during his time in Berlin. His service as a court musician probably conditioned him to the danger that members of his audience might be inclined to doze, so his rhetorical verve may have been cultivated as a countermeasure against that hazard.

He was probably also aware that virtuosity was a sure way to hold audience attention. As a result Wq 172 provides all the necessary enthusiastic blend of virtuoso skill with a particular emphasis on Allegro tempo markings. There is, of course, a middle Largo movement, in which the accompanying string ensemble (this is an all-string composition) plays with mutes, leaving only the soloist unmuted. This tends to give the inner movement an almost operatic quality, perhaps another one of the formulaic tricks for keeping the audience attentive.

The soloist for this concerto was Associate Principal Cello Peter Wyrick. He approached his task with all the necessary positive energy, perhaps even assuming the mindset that the Davies audience was no harder to please than a room full of Prussian nobles. Koopman’s conducting provided an excellent balance between the energy in the string ensemble and the focus on the cello virtuosity. This was a performance to send the audience out to the intermission break with an extra spring in their steps.

When everyone returned for Wq 183/4, they were able to appreciate Emanuel’s way with instrumentation. For this symphony the strings were balanced by two flutes, two oboes, one bassoon, and two horns (along with a harpsichord continuo, provided by Jonathan Dimmock). It is worth bearing in mind what else was happening while Emanuel was in Hamburg in 1776. Joseph Haydn was at Eszterháza composing some of his most imaginative and adventurous symphonies under the influence of the Sturm und Drang movement, endowing his thematic rhetoric with no end of unexpected twists. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on the other hand, was in Salzburg, feeling as if most of his time was going into putting out sacred music on spec. Both of them were aware of Emanuel’s work, but my guess is that some of the more stunning uses of full-stop silence in Wq 183/4 had a greater effect on Haydn than on Mozart. Koopman’s conducting certainly endowed this G major symphony with the same invigorating excitement he summoned when he gave this symphony its first performance in Davies in February of 2011.

Similar vigor could be found in the performance of Sebastian’s BWV 51 cantata, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (rejoice in God in all lands).This is a cantata for solo soprano (Carolyn Sampson), joined in the outer movements by virtuoso solo trumpet work (performed by Mark Inouye). While this was supported by a well-balanced string ensemble and organ continuo, all three of the inner movements, a recitative, an aria, and a chorale (with that glory-praise-and-honor phrase) were treated as chamber music. Continuo was thus provided only by Dimmock and Amos Yang on cello, while the only added string resources for the chorale were Nadya Tichman on first violin and John Chisholm on second.

The resulting performance was as joy-inducing as the cantata’s title. Inouye was particularly good at matching his dynamic level to Sampson’s. He also played his part from memory, again matching Sampson, who seldom consulted the score she was holding. This is one of Bach’s most intimate cantatas; and, even in the vast space of Davies, one could enjoy the intimacy of the occasion.

The only real weak point came with the opening performance of Sebastian’s BWV 1069 orchestral suite in D major. This involved far more interleaving of contrapuntal voices than had been required for BWV 51. Unfortunately, almost all of the details of that interleaving were lost in an oversized string ensemble. It was as if the performance had not been prepared to account for the amount of time taken by decay on the Davies stage. Thus every timpani stroke tended to mask almost all of the instrumental activity except for the three trumpets, and the three oboes never really brought their lines to a dynamic level matching the strings. Koopman tried to take a spritely approach in leading the dance movements of this suite, but there was just too much weight on the instrumental side to allow the dance steps to be deftly executed.

Fortunately, this was the only weak part of the program; and we always tend to remember the most recent moments when we leave the concert hall!