According to my records, the last time I listened to Ton Koopman conduct was when he led two weeks of San Francisco Symphony (SFS) subscription programs in March of 2015. On that occasion I discovered that I liked to use the adjective “spirited;” and this afternoon the first of the three performances he is giving for his return visit to Davies Symphony Hall was as spirited as ever. Prior to my encounters with his visits to Davies, I had associated him with historically-informed performances that involved historically-informed resources. While some of those resources were engaged this afternoon, such as valveless horns, harpsichord, and period-appropriate timpani, most of the SFS players performed on their usual instruments; and the spirit of a historically-informed performance emerged through the specific strategies Koopman engaged to deploy his resources.
The program was structured around the relatively early eighteenth century (roughly the 1730s) and the final decade of that century. As might be guessed, most of the music that preceded 1750 was by Johann Sebastian Bach. There were two such selections, the BWV 1041 violin concerto in A minor, with SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik as soloist; and the BWV 1069 orchestral suite in D major. These were both familiar offerings; but, through Koopman’s interpretations, the attentive listener might have been directed to previously unconsidered qualities.
Thus, while one generally tends to approach BWV 1041 in terms of the interplay between soloist and ensemble, Koopman knew just how to balance his resources to bring out how much interplay was taking place within the ensemble. This would be consistent with the prevailing conjecture that Bach composed this concerto for the Collegium Musicum to which he belonged (and sometimes directed), which gave weekly concerts at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house. As I have previously observed, these gatherings capture the spirit, if not the flesh, of jam sessions as we now known them; and the attentive listener would have had no trouble digging the polyphony of the different sections of the ensemble (first violins, second violins, violas, cello, and bass) each finding their own groove in the exchange of thematic material. In such a setting, the part for the solo violin amounts to icing on a delightfully flavorful cake.
Mind you, Barantschik was consistently engaged in spreading out that icing. As was probably the case at Zimmermann’s, he played along with the first violins to get into the groove, after which he could take off with riffs of his own. The result was a spirited engagement between soloist and ensemble in which Koopman served primarily to keep all those spirits suitably elevated.
That approach served equally well in his performance of BWV 1069. Here, again, polyphony ruled but now with oboes and trumpets (three of each) added to the mix. As is the case in most eighteenth-century suites, the inner movements are named after dance forms; but those associations have more to do with rhythmic patterns than with actual dancing. Each distinctive pattern found its own realization through the polyphonic interplay that Bach had written into the parts; and, while there was a certain formality in the contributions of the trumpets, each movement of the suite clearly reveled in its own distinctively joyous rhetoric.
Particularly fascinating, however, was the “overture” that Koopman selected to introduce these two Bach compositions. This was the first SFS subscription performance of the “Chaos” prologue to Jean-Féry Rebel’s ballet score Les Élémens. (Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a performance of this music at a Soundbox performance in March of 2016.) As the program notes by James M. Keller observed, Rebel may have been responsible for the first tone cluster in music history, since “Chaos” begins with the simultaneous sounding of all the pitches in a D minor scale.
If that opening gesture were not enough, disorder prevails through almost all of Rebel’s score. Every time the first flute tries to eke out a melodic line, it gets shouted down by dissonant outbursts coming from the entire string section, augmented by a drum. Rebel’s own program notes, on the other hand, discuss how the elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire emerge over the course of this movement; but even the most attentive listener would first have to figure out how to negotiate all of that dissonance, most of which never finds resolution through consonance. What was most impressive was Koopman’s ability to account for the many voices that contribute to that dissonance, defying any hint of sorting out into polyphony.
Haydn’s percussion parts for triangle, cymbals, and bass drum; note how triangle “expressiveness” is realized through dynamics (from the Breitkopf and Härtel edition of the score for Hoboken I/100, from IMSLP, public domain)
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/100 “Military” symphony in G major, composed in 1794 during his second visit to London. After all that Bach, one can appreciate the extent to which Haydn’s technique tended to prefer accompanied melody. However, Haydn being Haydn, the accompanying passages usually emerge as interesting as the melody itself. The score also accounts for “military” sonorities provided by bass drum, cymbals, and triangle. (It might be a stretch to call one of the extended passages for triangle a cadenza, but it comes close to being one.)
During his first visit to London, Haydn clearly established his talent for keeping audiences amused. It is almost a certainty that they expected that talent to return as part of his second visit. They definitely were not disappointed. Neither were those of us on audience side this afternoon. Koopman kept a tight rein on allowing all the details of the score to register with utmost clarity; but he definitely did not short-change any of Haydn’s imaginatively concocted belly-laughs.