Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), gave the first of three performances of its all-Italian program. The selections covered the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the last being represented by one of the most opulent gestures of modernism from a composer prominent in the wake of the Second World War, Luciano Berio. However, it was the eighteenth century that thrived best in the grand scheme of the overall program, due in large part to the efforts of the concerto soloist.
That soloist was Eugene Izotov, who became SFS Principal Oboe during last season, occupying a chair named after past SFS Music Director Edo de Waart. While de Waart was a significant champion of modernism during his SFS tenure, his “chair-holder” chose to turn to the Italian Baroque to introduce himself to San Francisco audiences as a concerto soloist. His selection is a favorite among audiences; but, as was observed about a week ago, it has a curious pedigree. It was published as a set of parts in 1716 as an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello the key of D minor. It was subsequently cataloged as Marcello’s Opus 1. It then went through a series of republications, one of which is a circa 1717 document transposed into the key of C minor; and at least one version of that publication attributed the transposed version to Alessandro’s younger brother Benedetto. The popularity of the concerto extended to Germany, where it was one of many Italian Baroque concertos that Johann Sebastian Bach rearranged as a solo harpsichord composition (BWV 974).
Izotov chose the C minor version of this concerto, and last night he performed as both soloist and leader. His solo work was both finely polished and agile. As leader he arranged a significantly reduced ensemble of strings (a scale that would have served Haydn much better had it been engaged last week) with a continuo provided by harpsichord (Robin Sutherland) and (very) occasionally reinforced by a single bass. The physical appearance of his leadership seemed to involve little more than marking time, but it was clear that his bond to the ensemble also involved listening. Thus, his shaping of the phrases in his solo line did much to influence the rhetorical tone of the strings. Last night emerged as a perfect example of how the Baroque repertoire can be performed on an appropriately reduced scale and still thrive in the vast space of Davies. It also left at least one listener curious as to how Izotov would take on some of the other major oboe concertos in the repertoire.
Then, like a pendulum swinging to the opposite extreme, the full SFS resources filled the stage, joined by the eight vocalists of The Swingle Singers (sopranos Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson and Sara Brimer Davey, altos Clare Wheeler and Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, tenors Oliver Griffiths and Richard Eteson, and basses Kevin Fox and Edward Randell), each carrying a wireless microphone. MTT bubbled over with enthusiasm at the prospect of bringing this music to Davies. (Its only previous performance was conducted by de Waart in 1979.) However, within the first few measures it was clear that things were just not going to click into place.
Composed in 1969 on a commission for celebrating the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, “Sinfonia” was created after Berio had spent an academic year as a Visiting Professor at Harvard University. By way of context, this was when Leon Kirchner, Chair of the Music Department, was working on his third string quartet that included an obligato tape of electronic music. (The electronics were provided by the recently-departed Don Buchla; and the tape itself was created by Morton Subotnick.) This was a good time to be an adventurous modernist in the Harvard Music Department, but Berio was more interested in hanging out with pioneers of what came to be called “cognitive science” at both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with particular attention to the psychology of linguistic behavior.
In this context “Sinfonia” emerged as what might be called a massive experiment in sensemaking, that process by which the mind behind the sensory organs figures out how to differentiate signal from noise. Drawing upon texts (by authors such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Samuel Beckett) that “all the other kids on the block” were reading, Berio concocted a canvas of sound whose scope was as wide and dazzling as any physical canvas by Jackson Pollock. His scope ranged from the microlevel syllabic decomposition of the name of Martin Luther King to a wild collage of sources too numerous to itemize figuratively pasted on top of the score pages of the third (Scherzo) movement of Gustav Mahler’s second (“Resurrection”) symphony. The mix was further enhanced by the Swingles both singing and declaiming.
The result may be one of those rare examples in which it may be unlikely that any performance will rise to the level of any of the available recordings. Recording engineers, after all, have the luxury of deploying as many microphones as they see fit and connecting them to a single mixing board from which they can call every shot they wish when it comes to sorting out the foreground from the background. In fairness where “Sinfonia” is concerned, that sorting must be a matter of personal judgment; but that judgment is easier to exercise when one is working from behind a mixing board without the constraints of real-time performance. Standing in front of the full panoply of resources required by Berio’s score is quite another matter, and last night it was unclear whether MTT was leading his resources or just providing a basic orientation in which everyone would add his/her piece to the mix.
Given how responsive Davies had been to the intimate scale required for the Marcello concerto, it is somewhat ironic that the ingredients of that mix that fared most poorly were the Swingles with their microphones. This may be because those mikes fed the house speakers, which hang above the stage at a significant height, about as remote from the rest of the ensemble as one can expect. I have to say that personally I found myself recalling how Mason Bates would always provide his own speakers for his electronica and have a say as to where they would be placed on the Davies stage. This made for a more integrated ensemble approach than the relationship between voices and instruments that emerged last night.
However, it may also be that the “original cast” had a better sense of what to make of the text than the current generation of Swingle Singers does. Ward Swingle himself carried most of the burden of the Beckett text, and he presented it as one who seemed to have seen a goodly share of Beckett on the stage and knew just the right kind of voice to bring to the performance. Oliver Griffiths now holds Swingle’s place in the group. Last night’s performance did not convince that he had ever read very much Beckett, let alone seen what good actors can do with that author’s words.
Berio also surfaced briefly during the second half of the program with an orchestration of one of the few art songs that Giuseppe Verdi composed, “Il poveretto” (the poor one). This was a case of chamber music being scaled up to a symphony orchestra. However, if the colors of “Sinfonia” were splashed all over the place, instrumentation for “Il poveretto” was meticulously applied to provide just the right instrumental shading of every word in Manfredo Maggioni’s text. The result was a dramatic experience as powerful as any of the intense moments of grand opera, if not more so.
The vocalist for “Il poveretto” was tenor Michael Fabiano, who accounted for opera with two additional Verdi selections and one by Gaetano Donizetti. The most familiar of these was “Una furtiva lagrima” (a furtive tear), the tenor aria at the turning point in the plot of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (the elixir of love). This was also the most intimate of his selections, and his balance with the relatively modest instrumental resources could not have been better. Unfortunately, when left to his own devices in the concluding cadenza, his pitch began to waver and never came back into alignment with the musicians. The Verdi arias, on the other hand, were over-emoted to a fare-thee-well. In the aria from Simon Boccanegra, musicianship gave way to chewing the scenery (a bit problematic when the only “scenery” was the conductor’s podium), while the aria from Il corsaro amounted to an exercise in cheerleading reinforced by the male voices of the SFS Chorus.
The Chorus began the second half of the program with Verdi’s “Te Deum” setting, one of four “sacred pieces” he wrote towards the end of his life. The setting is for double chorus and orchestra, and the spatial disposition of the singers facilitated an appreciation of how Verdi could do wonderful things with counterpoint when he put his mind to it. Unfortunately, he could not resist a series of instrumental outbursts, each of which MTT chose to deliver at a setting of eleven on the amplifier. The first one was a real jolt, but the impact quickly wore off as the others followed almost like carbon copies. Italians seem to know best how to react to such excesses. The word “basta!” could not put things better.