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Goodbye to All That

January 6, 2009

Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony — the dark, somber one in a weird key (F-sharp minor), which ends with the musicians quietly leaving the stage by ones and twos, until only a pair of violinists are left to finish the piece — is the perfect work to serve as a metaphor for the end of a questionable year. So what happens when it's performed on New Year's Day instead of New Year's Eve, and the order of the repertoire is changed so that it no longer concludes the program? Wrapping up with a suite of bright Gershwin songs instead of the Haydn ends the concert with an exclamatory "!" rather than a doubtful "?"
Such was the experience of those of us who attended the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra concert on Thursday afternoon at St. Mark's Church in Palo Alto. The same program had been played the previous night — 19 hours or one year earlier, depending on how you look at it — at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley and before that on Monday evening at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.

Music director Benjamin Simon and his musicians know how to perform a midperiod Haydn symphony. (This one is No. 45 of his 104 numbered symphonies, and dates from 1772, the year he turned 40.) It's all about the contrasts. Shivering vigor runs up against muted introspection; scurrying activity is stopped by sudden unexpected pauses. The pauses are an important part of Haydn's effect. When performed properly, they're the loudest silences in classical music. Simon, conducting with a plain, precise beat, attacked them with vehemence.

The last contrast came when the craggy Presto finale suddenly slowed into a gentle, valedictory Adagio. The glowering, tortured Haydn of the vigorous, active moments melted into a precursor of the courtly charmer we know from his later years. Horns, oboes, and bass played their concertante solos and departed the stage. Other players left at intervals. Even the conductor stepped off the podium, while three string players were still keeping a chamber ensemble going.
Embraceable George
Then everybody came back for the Gershwin, joined by chanteuse Amanda King and two jazz musicians — bassist Jeff Neighbor, who wrote the orchestral arrangements, and pianist Jon Herbst. (SFCO timpanist Scott Bleaken sat at a drum kit.) Six songs from five different films and stage musicals were well-chosen to display Gershwin's lyrical ability. Someone to Watch Over Me and Our Love Is Here to Stay are perhaps his most touching songs. S'Wonderful and Slap That Bass provided a more upbeat contrast, while They Can't Take That Away From Me and Embraceable You lay somewhere in between.

Neighbor, acting as a kind of kibitzing front-seat assistant conductor, pushed the music to swing. King doesn't have a great voice, though she has a terrific personality for conveying intimate nightclub charm in songs like these. Discreetly amplified, she bent the rhythms of the notes a little but didn't play around with the pitch, and was fairly steady on it, at least in the main bodies of the songs, the parts everyone knows. She and Neighbor deserve compliments for also including the often-deleted introductory sections.

Three years after Haydn made his "Farewell," the 19-year-old Mozart popped out five violin concertos. The first of these, K. 207 in B flat, was the highlight of the first half of the concert. The orchestra provided excellent accompaniment with the same diligence they would later bring to the Haydn, while the star was their concertmaster, Robin Sharp, as soloist. She has a strong, light, yet rich tone — I could use the same compliments to describe Amanda King's voice — and she handled the music gently, making light initial attacks and then pushing slightly to a stronger bowing. The result was not melting beauty, but rather something equally appealing: infinite care. The players held the music in their hands as if it were a precious jewel.

The program notes did not give the origin of the cadenzas that Sharp played. They were long, imaginative, and full of lyrical passages in double stops.

A chunk of Handel's Water Music (Suite No. 2, the one featuring trumpets and including the famous Hornpipe) began the concert. This was slow and stately, but Simon never let go of a firm, solid rhythm. All five movements, despite their tempos, were compellingly dancelike.
Impressionistic New Work
One new work completed the program, a Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra by Valerie Coleman, best known as the flutist in the Imani Winds ensemble and also an active composer. Gwendolyn Mok was the pianist. Her part lay in the foreground, but apart from one jazzlike cadenza it did not dominate the work or give flashy display. Coleman's inspiration was the landscape and music of West Africa. Simon in his preconcert talk described the music as "impressionistic," and especially at the beginning it shimmered in exotic harmonies, a bit like Ravel in a slightly extroverted mood.

Toward the end of the 15-minute work, the harmonies became plain and open, akin to the American prairie style, but with more of a touch of Afro-Cuban rhythm than you'd hear in, say, Copland. Coleman never cuts loose in this piece, nor does she employ pop music idioms — though lions were among her inspirations, she's not writing The Lion King — yet this is a work capable of appealing to a casual general audience.

A large number of children came to this free concert. Some were a little noisy, but they were old enough to appreciate the music and seemed mostly to be doing so.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.