Primary tabs

Sweet Joy of Youth

November 13, 2007

Mix equal parts youthful joie de vivre with mature warmth and you have an idea of what the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra accomplished Sunday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall. The ensemble's sheer warmth of timbre, under Conductor Benjamin Shwartz, highlighted a program of essentially lush Romanticism, from first note to last. The afternoon even included a literal encore: a repeat of its finale ginger. The program also included an important talent discovery in 14-year-old cellist Tessa Seymour.
George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture (1932) opened the proceedings, followed by Ernest Bloch’s Hebrew rhapsody Schelomo (1916), for cello and orchestra. To round the afternoon off, Shwartz challenged his musicians with Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25 (1937), frequently referred to as "the Brahms Fifth."

Young Tessa Seymour, a Berkeley resident, has already won a caboodle of major prizes and awards, including the Youth Orchestra's 2007 Concerto Competition. She certainly has courage, as demonstrated by her taking on Bloch's masterpiece.

Apart from its technical difficulties, which are considerable, the aesthetics of the piece are daunting. They form a kind of emotive booby trap. Overplay the lushness of the solos and you have a sonic grease pot on your hands. But play the work in an absolutely straightforward manner, lacking in rubato, and the effect is like trying to chew a hairball.

Seymour's uncanny sense of tasteful proportion proved right on target, demonstrating a natural talent that cannot be taught. Richly emotive, darkly umber in presentation, her playing projected the full gravitas of Bloch's elegy to the ancient glories of Israel in the days of Solomon. Whether in the languid recitatives or in passages with full orchestra, she could always be heard, and always in proportion to the overall needs of the moment. That's a remarkable achievement, astoundingly so for one so young. As my seat partner observed, himself a former principal for four orchestras, "That'll be a major career."
Brilliant Composer Absent Without Leave
It's odd about Bloch, whose local connections are strong, with five years as director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a dozen years on the faculty of UC Berkeley. During the 1920s and '30s, he was ranked as a major composer of the century. Aside from his other accomplishments, his students included musicians as diverse as Ernest Ansermet, Roger Sessions, and Leon Kirchner. He taught basic principles, not how to write à la Bloch.

Yet Bay Area performances of even his major works are rare today. I've not heard a live performance of his big Violin Concerto in eons, never the early Symphony in C-sharp Minor, nor any of his great chamber compositions like the First Quartet, the first Piano Quintet, or Violin Sonatas — not to mention the two large orchestral interludes from his opera, Macbeth.

The architectural strength and beautiful sonics of Schelomo provided the audience with a feast of splendor. The Youth Orchestra captured these qualities like pros. I doubt that even Richard Strauss produced more compelling orchestral sounds. True, Bloch wrote his share of turkeys. His best creations were the early things. In later life he slipped into archconservatism, which ultimately tarnished what had been an illustrious career. That doesn't mean, however, that he should just pass and be forgotten with the rest.

Despite the beauty of the Bloch work, the big Schoenberg transcription rather stole the laurel wreath of the matinee concert. Schoenberg is too seldom credited as a master of orchestral balances and colors. Experiencing his transcription of the Brahms is like having a sonic cormorant before you, diving into original texture possibilities to come up with something that's a sonic yum-yum. Only you never know what it will be until he gets to the surface and coughs it up.

Being a great orchestral showpiece, the Brahms-Schoenberg — like the Bach-Schoenberg transcriptions — challenges an orchestra's virtuosity. The Youth Orchestra charged right in, battle flags flying, and came up winners. The glow of the lyrical materials was inspired, and the bravura swagger of the brilliant passages left nothing to be desired. Not surprisingly, the audience craved more, so Shwartz repeated the last quarter of Brahms' Gypsy Rondo finale.

The Gershwin? That was far less fun. First of all, Cuban Overture, originally titled simple Rumba, does not contain the kind of first-rate thematic material that Gershwin's mind was heir to. Then, too, the architecture is weak, meandering through this and that bit of the obvious, but never in an orderly fashion. As Liszt said of the Bruckner symphonies, "They don't begin, they don't end. They last." (Mind you, I'm a Brucknerian and have been since my teens.)

The orchestra seemed somewhat listless and underrehearsed in the Gershwin, which didn't help matters. The young instrumentalists, and Shwartz himself, lacked the kind of Latin lilt required to make absorbing listening out of Gershwin's weakest symphonic effort. The performance sounded too proper, too gringo to be seriously effective. But oh, those Bloch and Schoenberg performances were something else.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.