Last night in Herbst Theatre, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO), led by its Music Director Benjamin Simon, gave the San Francisco performance of the second of its four Main Stage Concerts. Traditionally, this concert has been scheduled to take place on the threshold between the old and the new year; and the tradition includes Simon leading the audience in singing two verses of “Auld Lang Syne” (printed in the program book, for those who do not know the second verse). This season this holiday event was dedicated to the memory of SFCO Founder Edgar Braun, and the program consisted entirely of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Two guest soloists were invited for the occasion, and one member of the ensemble was also featured for solo work.
That member was bassist Michel Taddei, who contributed to what was probably the least familiar and definitely the most unique selection. Taddei joined bass (and guest artist) Brad Walker in a performance of the K. 612 concert aria “Per questa bella mano” (by this fair hand), whose instrumental accompaniment requires virtuoso solo work for the double bass. With apologies to Dizzy Gillespie and John Lewis, the result was a “two bass hit.” Pushing the underlying pun, Taddei was first at the plate, preparing the way for Walker with some of the most rapid-fire bowing one is like to encounter in the double bass literature. Walker then took over with an almost crooning style, evoking the sort of romantic arias that Mozart had previously written for the character Guglielmo in his K. 588 opera Così fan tutte (thus do all women). The contrast in rhetorical stances was delightful; and the obstreperous nature of the Taddei’s virtuoso passages reminded those who know that opera that, in the course of some of Guglielmo’s romantic music, he is actually “faking it.”
Walker himself took up the mantle of wit for an “encore selection” for the evening (scare quotes because it was included in the program book), Leporello’s “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” (my dear lady, this is the catalog), from Mozart’s K. 567 opera Don Giovanni. Using a thick leather-bound book as a prop, Walker milked every sarcasm (blatant or subtle) out of the text that Lorenzo Da Ponte had written for this aria, all reinforced with meticulous control of his body language. Walker’s voice has just the right coloration for the full breath of seriocomic complexity that Mozart often demands of his bass-voice opera characters; and, however familiar “Madamina” may be to opera lovers, last night’s delivery was definitely one for the books.
At least some of Walker’s successful impression was probably due to the fact that his chemistry with the SFCO ensemble was as important as his own vocal qualities. Alas, the same cannot be said of the other soloist for the evening, pianist Robert Schwartz, who took the solo part in a performance of the K. 466 concerto in D minor. As the key choice suggests, this is a concerto that begins with stormy intensity; but the clouds have dispersed by the end of the first movement. The F major Romanza was, as Simon himself observed in his introductory remarks, practically an opera aria without words; and, in spite of the return to minor, the concluding Allegro assai is predominantly frolicsome, with a coda that has a few gestures that deliberately tickle the funny bone.
Unfortunately, intensity seemed to be the only rhetorical stance that interested Schwartz. More often than not, it tended to drown out the orchestral parts, suggesting that Schwartz was not one to recede to the background, even when that was what the score required. In spite of Simon’s introduction, there was nothing aria-like in his approach to the Romanza, while in the Allegro assai he was more occupied with virtuosity at the fastest possible tempo than with Mozart’s capacity for playfulness. Perhaps Schwartz’ overall attitude was shaped by his decision to play the cadenzas that Ludwig van Beethoven had written for the outer movements; but, as those whose appreciation of Beethoven goes beneath the myths on the surface, Beethoven knew about the light touch just as well as Mozart did.
The ensemble was much better served on its own, particularly in the symphony selection for the evening, K. 504 (“Prague”) in D major. This is music in which Mozart covers a wide range of rhetorical stances, and Simon was always perfectly attuned to each of them. It is also a score in which Mozart uses his winds and brass to summon up a wide diversity of colors, including some unique low brass tones coming from the horn that endow the Andante with a bit more darkness than one might expect from such a movement. That coloration was also abundantly evident in the opening selection, the overture to the K. 492 opera The Marriage of Figaro. Simon took this overture at the brisk pace required to introduce the “crazy day” that is about to unfold over the course of four acts; and the rhetoric suggests there will be some serious sentiment lurking behind all that madness.
Whatever 2017 brings, let us hope that we shall still always have Mozart.