Monday, December 9, 2013

Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Haydn & Beethoven's 9th Symphony at San Diego Symphony (7 Dec 2013)

I somehow managed to dodge the intermittent rain on my way to Jacobs Music Center (formerly Copley Symphony Hall) last Saturday evening. The San Diego Symphony was offering an early Romantic program of Brahms' Haydn Variations and Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
Box Office at Jacobs Music Center (still under renovation but is open for business).
The young maestro Ken David Masur was the evening's no-nonsense conductor. I wasn't terribly familiar with Johannes Brahms Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a, so it was quite a pleasant musical discovery. The piece only requires a small orchestra without the bigger brass and anchored by the woodwinds (a happy thing considering the SDSO's first rate winds section!). The lilting pastoral theme is followed by eight fantastically varied variations that allows all the instruments to shine. The end is capped by a virtuosic grand finale. It's an interesting piece... starting like a soft country field dance and ending like a grand symphony. It was a nice prelude to the evening's main attraction; Beethoven's biggest symphony.

Richard Zeller, Robert Breault, Elizabeth DeShong, Measha Brueggergosman, Gary McKercher, Ken David Masur with San Diego Master Chorale and San Diego Symphony Orchestra.
Beethoven's immensely complex Beethoven's 9th Symphony was conducted without a score. Quite a feast for a young conductor! Maestro Masur set a brisk pace and a very clean reading of the much loved epic opus, trading a bit of sentiment for a fresh flair. I suspect the newer and/or younger audience enjoyed it a bit more than the older/more veteran ones. I liked much of it, though there were places where I would have liked a bit more time to process the mood that Schiller & Beethoven tried to describe. The fast pace also was a bit of a chore for the soloists to keep up, though everyone managed.

Baritone Richard Zeller clearly enjoyed his lines and they benefited handsomely from his voice. The star soloist of the evening had to be Robert Breault, though. I was quite amazed at how youthful he sounded and how supple his voice still is. He injected quite a bit of pitch-perfect bel canto and a whole lot of good nature pathos into his solo, and even managed to convince Maestro Masur and the orchestra to temper their tempo to avoid an acoustic train wreck.

I'm afraid I couldn't hear much of Elizabeth DeShong (but then I wasn't in a very acoustically favorable section of the house). Soprano Measha Brueggergosman proved quite eye-drawing (in a good way! She just sat in her seat with this exotic look and a Mona Lisa-ish smile on her face that was hard to look away from) even before she started any singing. When she did stand up and started sounding, though, her voice dominated the hall. The lass was loud... though quite uneven. This was the first time I heard her live and I quite liked the sweet middle part of her voice. Alas, Beethoven, when penning the soprano solo bit for this number, was more interested in the upper notes, and those from Brueggergosman were quite less sweet and at times downright shrieky (it didn't really help that she was much louder than everyone else whenever she was singing).

Another star of the evening was the impeccable San Diego Master Chorale. To be honest, this band is getting on my nerves a bit with their dependability. How are you supposed to criticize a chorus when they are always turning up on their A game??? The tenor section used to be the most vulnerable part of the choir, but they were just as spotlessly fantastic as the rest of the group were Saturday night.

All in all, the concert was a big success, and I think I wasn't the only audience member who was hoping for a Choral Fantasy as an encore when the show was over as we clapped the performers out for three rounds of curtain calls. (That's about as many as you're going to get here in San Diego. It's a strange town... We give easy standing O's, but we are also always in a hurry to get home and won't keep clapping for long).

PS: I didn't get rained on on the ride home either, but man, 5th Avenue can really use some repaving. It's no fun sprinting uphill on such a wavy pavement!


Anonymous said...

Hey Smorgy, this is a cool makeover you have. Did you change the theme? When I did this it took me ages to readjust all the colours.

Anonymous said...

oh you also had your nice dosage of beethoven 9th? is this some special year coz his 9th is all over boston area (good for me, i never miss a chance to hear a live one). it's interesting you note the soprano's take... sort of our feeling here as well (i thought she hijacked it with hawk-like attack while hausmate thought she wanted to take over whole concert :D). Our maestro mentioned in the first concert the super young soprano Beethoven picked skipped many of those high notes :D

Smorg said...

Hiya Eyes,
Thanks! Yup, I actually only meant to change the photo at the top, but the new one (of Creve Coeur Lake in St Louis, actually... Feelin' a bit nostalgic for the home port this time of year) didn't go with the old blue background, so I had to change that, then all the font colors were clashing with the new look, so I had to play with it and the link colors as well. It was quite a mess for a hour or two. :oP Will leave it alone for at least the winter now. :o)

Smorg said...

Hiya An!
I'm telling you, Beethoven 9th in December is like Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music right around Thanksgiving these days. :oD I'm not complaining, tho. Any chance to hear the SD Master Chorale is great for me. They're aging like fine wine.

Ha! In the pre-concert lecture it was mentioned how the original soprano begged Beethoven to lower her part (it's really high), but he refused. :oD I don't know if she then omitted the lines in performance, but the one persisting anecdote with the piece is the one about how Beethoven was co-conducting and was still waving his arms long after the piece was finished (which was how the main audience realized that he was deaf and couldn't hear anything).

I find that interesting because all the live Beethoven 9th I've heard have been at pretty brisk place... I wonder how it would sound like at quite slower tempo. After all, it seemed the deaf Beethoven had something slower in mind than even his contemporary did at the premier.

Gotta say, I've been quite jealous of all the good Baroque music you're getting in Boston! Somehow we rarely get any of that here. Love all your write ups, of course. :oD