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Bigger Is Not Bolder

May 15, 2007

No music makes a bigger statement than the brassy sunrise of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. Because tour programs are generally about making statements, the extravagant tone poem based on Nietzsche's extravagantly confident philosophy is music befitting the San Francisco Symphony's current itinerary. This week the orchestra heads to New York, Vienna, and Prague with the Strauss showpiece in the music folders, but on the basis of Saturday's concert at Davies Symphony Hall, its big statements will be made by the "little" moments.
That's not to say the orchestra didn't make the most of Strauss' music. The opening was brilliant and forceful, showing the brass in great form, and the trumpets and horns in particular played with superb burnish and clean intonation throughout the piece. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas steered the performance steadily through Strauss' numerous descriptive episodes, proceeding inexorably to the climactic revelation during the "Convalescent" chapter and then again through the long dance of Zarathustra and the concluding night song.

The only failing of this approach was a lack of schmaltz. The waltz episode, announcing the freedom of the "Superman" from the shackles of ordinary consciousness, could have used some rubato and giddiness, and not so much stomping. Otherwise this was an impressive display of conducting and playing all around, including Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik's gleaming (if not meltingly warm) solos and cellist Michael Grebanier's elegant interjections.

The highlight, however, was not the surging "ardor" section after the opening fanfare, nor the thunderous climaxes of the second half of the music, but instead the darkly somber fugue of the "science" stage of the tone poem. Here, the low strings played with focused and dense tone and a rapt quiet — a truly distinctive and eloquent beauty emerged that, unfortunately, seems to elude the orchestra too often when it pumps out sound with all its power.

Basically, the orchestra sounded better when it played softly and when only a few instrumental sections were on display, from the tender bassoon solos in the Strauss to the chattering clarinets and darkly muttering English horns in the Mahler songs that preceded the Strauss. This also helped explain the forbidding brusqueness of the opening work, Aaron Copland's Short Symphony (his Symphony No. 2).
All Strings Blazing
In retrospect, this brilliant virtuosic statement seemed overblown, with its full complement of strings (the score omits heavy artillery like trombones and tuba). A smaller orchestra might have allowed the piano and low horns to peek through the sound texture better. And maybe the middle movement could have been more tender — enough to serve as a more effective emotional counterweight to the outer movements' restlessness.

Nonetheless, the Copland symphony showed impressive timing and tuning. The big orchestra had no trouble with music so rhythmically complex and persistently dissonant that the work did not get a U.S. premiere until a dozen years after Carlos Chavez first conducted it in Mexico. Only the frequent glissandos in the first movement sounded slightly awkward.

Nothing was awkward, however, about the orchestra's grasp of style in five of Gustav Mahler's poignant songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The felicities of the orchestral accompaniment were too plentiful to enumerate, even as they allowed baritone Thomas Hampson ample room to take center stage. In the Mahler the orchestra's sound was more focused and compact than at any other time on Saturday night, allowing the dark bassoon trills, the rasping tam-tam, and the delicate blends of reeds and strings to emerge with the naturalness of sighs and moans.

All this blessedly pure sound underlined Hampson's deceptively uncomplicated portrayal of doom, defiance, hallucination, love, and transcendence in a world wracked by war. In "Der Tamboursg'sell" he clung desperately to the mock innocence of a "drummer boy" heading for execution; in "Revelge" he conjured a hint of sarcasm in the military discipline; in "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" he navigated the tender conversation between two lovers parting.

Hampson's voice seemed slightly less rich and virile than it has been in other recent appearances here. Indeed, he struggled to project diction and tone sufficiently in the first song ("Lied des Verfolgten im Turm") — perhaps the only example in the entire concert where bigger would have been better. But by the time the set concluded with "Urlicht," the hint of tenderness and diminution in Hampson's voice had proven essential to his interpretation.

The final high note was not a heavenly light that bathes ascending souls (as the "Urlicht" sounds when sung by an alto in the fourth movement of Mahler's Second Symphony). Rather, Hampson reversed our perspective and intoned a last prayer of a vulnerable man reaching upward tentatively to accept an invitation from his maker. It was a stunning demonstration of how small trumped big all evening.

Jeff Rosenfeld is an oboist with the Kensington Symphony and other Bay Area ensembles.