Anyone who felt that Antonín Dvořák did not get a fair shake on Saturday night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music would have taken great satisfaction yesterday afternoon at Davies Symphony Hall. Wattis Foundation Music Director Christian Reif led the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) in a performance of that composer’s Opus 88 (eighth) symphony in G major that could not have been better informed or executed. Reif knew exactly how to elicit the rich expressiveness of this symphony, and the SFSYO players were clearly attuned to his every move.
He could not have been better at exploiting the sharp contrasts in dynamic levels that this symphony requires, and his nuanced approach to the soft passages only served to emphasize the stirring impact of the loud ones. Indeed, when there was a need for emphatic forte passages, not only did he have the horns play with raised bells but also he encouraged similar raised posture from the oboists and clarinets. This was a reading of Dvořák that covered the entire gamut from subdued introspection to emphatic exuberance.
However, Reif’s approach to Dvořák was only half the deal, as they might say, occupying the entirety of the second half of the program. The first half was just as striking through its own merits, which entailed contrasts arising from the juxtaposition of Samuel Barber and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The program began with Samuel Barber’s Opus 17, the second of three compositions he entitled “Essay for Orchestra.” The first of these pieces was his Opus 12, completed in the first half of 1938, whose first performance was given by Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a radio broadcast on November 5, 1938, a broadcast that also included the first performance of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” his string orchestra arrangement of the second movement from his Opus 11 string quartet.
That broadcast did much to promote Barber’s reputation. As a result, the second essay was written to fulfill a commission from Bruno Walter for a concert marking the centennial of the New York Philharmonic. It was completed on March 15, 1942 and given its premiere the following month. (To complete the count, Barber would not compose the third essay until 1978, about three years before his death.)
While the opening theme of the second essay is clearly in F minor, Barber had a gift for couching it in both harmonic and rhythmic ambiguity, almost as if he intended his title to imply a rhetoric of discursive prose, in contrast to the regularities of metre and rhyme in poetry. However, if that prose is discursive, it is still highly expressive; and, as is the case in the Dvořák symphony, much of that expressiveness arises from the two extremes of dynamic levels and the nuanced contrasts that Barber elicits as his thematic material finds its way between those levels. The piece is only about ten minutes in duration; but Barber is downright masterful in being able to hold off any sense of a well-defined cadence until the final measures of that duration.
Reif knew exactly how to negotiate Barber’s overall plan for this piece; and, as was the case with his reading of Dvořák, the SFSYO players were with him every step of the way. He made a strong case that Barber deserves more attention, perhaps even more than he was receiving during his lifetime. It would be comforting to think that Reif has now performed the same service in the interest of Barber’s work that Toscanini undertook in 1938.
Barber’s essay served as an “overture” for the performance of Mozart’s final symphony, K. 551 (“Jupiter”) in C major. Once again scrupulous attention to dynamics made all the difference in Reif offering such a spirited reading of this symphony. Most engaging was his adept control of the Mannheim crescendo technique, which was clearly established during the first movement and maintained for the duration of the symphony. Indeed, Reif was as skillful at deploying decrescendo changes as he was in managing his crescendos.
All this was realized with an only slightly reduced string section. The fact is that, if one is going to work with “long-range” changes in dynamic level, then having more resources tends to be an asset, particular when performing in a space as large as Davies. Reif clearly knew exactly how many string players he needed to achieve the effects that he had in mind; and those effects impressively reflected the almost sparkling optimism in the rhetoric of Mozart’s score (not to mention his fasten-your-seat-belts approach to piling on multiple lines of counterpoint in the coda of the final movement). All of that well-managed energy could not have provided a better way to “prime the pump” for all of the nineteenth-century energy behind Dvořák’s Opus 88.
Reif has not wasted any time in establishing that what he can do with SFSYO resources deserves serious listening attention, and it is clear that his efforts have yielded far more than “friends and family’ occasions.