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Ives Steals the Show

November 20, 2007

When I picked up my tickets at Davies Symphony Hall on Friday, the words "Mendelssohn Violin Concerto" were written in boldface across them. The San Francisco Symphony had wisely chosen to market the concert on the name recognition of the Mendelssohn chestnut and on the appeal of its interpreter, rising star Sergey Khachatryan. But while Khachatryan’s performance was indeed riveting, perhaps the evening's greatest star was the composer Charles Ives.
Ives was well-represented throughout the program. The first half opened with the composer's setting of Psalm 90, scored for mixed chorus, brief solos for soprano and tenor, organ, bells, and gong. The second half of the concert was an example of innovative programming at its best. Five old American hymn tunes — a genre that lies at the heart of Ives’ compositional practice — were sung by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (prepared by Director Ragnar Bohlin) and followed by a performance of the composer’s New England Holidays Symphony. The symphony's four movements were interspersed with Ives programmatic descriptions, recited from memory from the podium by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas.
Rocky, Then Exquisite
The evening got off to a bit of a rocky start, with balance issues between the chorus and the accompaniment in the Psalm 90. Throughout much of the piece, the organ was too loud — a problem particularly acute during the brief solos by tenor Thomas Busse and soprano Cindy Wyvill. Near the end of the work, however, the balance settled and both choir and accompaniment delivered an exquisitely paced decrescendo to a piquant and hushed conclusion. The chorus and accompaniment were also well-balanced in the performances of the hymn tunes on the second half of the program — if occasionally out of time with one another.

Psalm 90 was followed by the Mendelssohn. Khachatryan’s playing was nothing short of extraordinary. His interpretation was unique, filled with marvelous nuances of articulation, accent, and phrasing. He decided to forego the traditional approach of playing the piece as one endless lyrical line, and instead presented a Mendelssohn full of surface details and wonderfully rough edges. Khachatryan’s manipulation of timing was impeccable, full of small adjustments to pacing in ways that I had never heard before — and yet with an effect that sounded completely natural.
Not Always in Concert
If the Mendelssohn performance had any disappointments they were to be found in the accompaniment. Khachatryan’s iconoclastic pacing was not always effectively matched by the orchestra, and there were many moments in which orchestra and soloist were a hair apart. Furthermore, I had the impression that Khachatryan felt reined in by these limitations, leading him perhaps to play “safer” than he might have with a more willing accompanist.

My disappointments with the orchestra were made up for in the ensemble’s performance — joined in the final movement by the chorus — of Ives’ New England Holidays Symphony, which closed the evening. Both the Symphony and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas have proven themselves time and again as adept Ives interpreters, able to carry off with panache both the composer’s technical complexities and his musical Americanisms. Tilson Thomas deftly charted the path of orchestra and chorus through the work’s myriad metrical difficulties, aided in the raucous third movement by Associate Conductor James Gaffigan.

Alexander Kahn is a Ph.D. candidate in music history and literature at UC Berkeley, where his research is focused on the Hollywood émigrés. He is also the assistant conductor of the Oakland Civic and the UC Berkeley symphony orchestras.