Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) presented the first concert in its season of four. Departing from the usual overture-concerto-symphony format, BARS decided to launch the season by featuring two soloists, cellist Emil Miland and mezzo Jill Grove. The second half of the program was then devoted to Johannes Brahms’ Opus 98 (fourth and last) symphony in E minor. The conductor was Music Director Dawn Harms.
Miland began the program as soloist in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 33 (first) cello concerto in A minor. This is a single-movement concerto; and its Wikipedia page suggests that Saint-Saëns may have been inspired to structure it that way through hi encounter with Franz Liszt’s single-movement piano sonata in B minor. The structure is episodic with a graceful Allegretto con moto minuet in the middle and an intense series of highly virtuosic episodes on either side, those following the minuet roughly (make note of that adverbial qualifier) recapitulating those preceding it.
As is the case with the Liszt sonata, both soloist and ensemble face major challenges in expressing this concerto as a well-integrated whole. If the performers did not quite rise all the way to those challenges, it should be observed in fairness that Saint-Saëns did not make things particularly easy for them. His primary focus seemed to be on writing impressive virtuoso material for the cello, and those passages definitely constitute the concerto’s strong suit. As can sometimes be found in Saint-Saëns’ piano music, his approach to virtuosity involves a well-considered balance between dexterity and sonority; and Miland was definitely at the top of his game where both of these factors were concerned. Thus, while other concertos may provide more substance for the serious listener, one had to admire the spectacle that fired on all cylinders last night.
Saint-Saëns’ Opus 33 was followed by Edward Elgar’s Opus 37, an orchestral song cycle entitled Sea Pictures. Each of the five songs is by a different poet, one of whom was the composer’s wife, Caroline Alice Elgar. What may be most intriguing about Elgar’s selection of texts is how “the sea itself” (Walt Whitman was not one of the poets Elgar selected) moves between foreground and background as the poems disclose themselves to the listener.
This was the work on the program that required the largest ensemble, including harp, percussion, and contrabassoon. Instrumentation played a major role in how Elgar chose to interpret his selected texts. Yet he also knew how to balance the magnitude of those resources against the dynamics of the human voice. He probably based his balance on the fullness of a contralto voice (although he had also scored a higher-register version for soprano and piano). Last night Grove was clearly comfortable with the contralto range of the score, and her blending with the BARS players gave a clear account of the richness of sonorities Elgar had engaged to support the texts he had selected.
Sonority was also a key element in Harms’ direction of the Brahms Opus 98. This is a symphony in which much of the rhetorical impact comes from the diversity of instrumental combinations assigned to present the different themes. The upbeat rhetoric of the scherzo movement (Allegro giocoso) is even underscored with some very judiciously-conceived passages for triangle. If the overall phrasing was a big ragged from time to time, Harms and her players had clearly come to an agreement of the overall expressiveness of the symphony. One could thus admire the whole without dwelling on those few moments in need of further polishing.