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The Lesser Side of Greatness

October 23, 2007

When the ghost of Jacob Marley first appears in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, practical, level-headed Ebenezer Scrooge suspects "an undigested bit of beef" at work, rather than a supernatural knocking at the door. Thursday night, in Davies Hall, I was searching my memory for any recent digestive mishap that might have caused my strange state of mind.
Here, after all, was the great Kurt Masur, 80, the illustrious former music director of the Dresden Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic, majestically conducting the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, both at their best. Here was the magician pianist Louis Lortie. Here were big works from three big-name composers. And what was I doing? Fantasizing about "prisons, workhouses, and the Treadmill" where the Symphony programmers could rub elbows with Scrooge's despised "surplus population." Bah, humbug to me. The rest of the audience had a jolly time, and God bless them, every one!

From the sourpuss point of view, those big-name composers were represented by their weakest, most bombastic works. However well you play Franz Liszt's Totentanz (and you cannot play it more spectacularly than Lortie did), it's a ridiculously overblown piece of boom-boom music.
Light Beethoven, Heavy Prokofiev
Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, described in Symphony marketing literature as "elegant, lighthearted, and invigorating," is really none of that. It's a nearly haphazard collection of different sections — piano solo, orchestral passage, choral restatement of the previous two — all "important" rather than blithesome.

The second half of the concert was taken up by Prokofiev's score for Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film, Alexander Nevsky, a large-scale, heavy-handed example of "Soviet music." At the heart of the score is the section "Arise, People of Russia!," an exhortation realized with the full four-part chorus sustaining fortissimo passages.

The underwhelming program aside, how was the performance? Exceptional. Lortie's virtuoso work in the Liszt, his total dedication in the Beethoven almost made it immaterial what he was playing — there was art in the execution. His brilliance comes across in a sincerely self-effacing way; Lortie is a Lang Lang-plus pianist, without the Attitude.
Stepping Out from the Chorus
Other normally reticent artists also appeared in the limelight, as members of the Symphony Chorus sang brief solos in the Beethoven, led by sopranos Pamela Sebastian and Tiffany Cromartie and mezzo Erin Neff. The other soloists-for-a-night were tenor Kevin Gibbs, baritone Steven Rogino, and bass Chung-Wai Soong.

Masur stayed in the background to let Lortie and the orchestra do what they must in Totentanz, and he led the Choral Fantasy with the unassuming authority of the great Beethoven specialist that he is. In the Prokofiev, Masur's previously appropriate, laissez-faire leadership resulted in a somewhat tentative sound early on, but soon enough the maestro cracked the whip (gently). By the time the work's more complex, demanding, and rewarding portions came up, all was well, the music now powerful, not merely loud. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby's aria of lament for the dead gave a glimpse into depths that most of the concert approached, but didn’t quite reach.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].