Davies Hall, San Francisco
February 15, 2019
The San Francisco Symphony
Andras Schiff, conductor and piano
The San Francisco Symphony Chorus,
Ragnar Bohlin, director
Jennifer Mitchell, soprano
Margaret (Peg) Lisi, mezzo-soprano
Michael Jankosky, tenor
Keyboard Concerto No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1054 (ca. 1730)
Keyboard Concerto No. 4 in A Major, BWV 1055 (ca. 1730)
Orchestral Suite No. 3, BWV 1068 (ca. 1730)
Mendelssohn – Lobgesang, Opus 52 (1840)
Let it never be said that an evening of Lutheran virtue makes for date night in San Francisco. Absent last Friday from our grey-haired audience huddling into its winter coats were the backless dresses and sculpture-worthy flashes of leg which usually cheer the frisky. Two gay men I passed in the crowd were no happier about it: “Bach only brings out the old men,” sighed one ruefully. But there was a fascination for me in what turned out to be a solid, indeed old-fashioned evening of Victorian-style uplift. In particular, I was eager to encounter live Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang Symphony-Cantata (“The Song of Praise”), sometimes called his Second Symphony. It was composed in 1840 to celebrate Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type (ed.), but receives here its first San Francisco performance.
András Schiff, himself, seems at times a figure of the Austro-Hungarian past. He walks onstage from the wings with slow, courtly gravitas, white tie and tails classically correct right down to the pocket-watch chain dangling from his vest. He bows deliberately and formally, seats himself slowly at the keyboard and proceeds to play and conduct with a poker faced ambassadorial demeanor only occasionally enlivened by touches of cat-like serenity. It might as well be 1919.
Although Schiff performed his two concertos at this concert with a small ensemble and employed only a slightly larger one for the Bach Third Suite, numbering perhaps thirty onstage, his approach would not have been out of place fifty years ago. This is the way we heard Bach in the days of Glenn Gould, before the historically informed performance movement took hold: solid strings; solid piano tone; not much air and transparency; easy-going tempos; no harpsichord; nothing volatile. The two-fisted quality of playing Baroque music this way made its mark, though. As I looked around the audience, I could see smiles of recognition on the faces of these old schoolboys at the appearance of some of Bach’s easily hummed melodies. They probably had to sit still for them as children in music appreciation class. And now they wanted to tap their canes. Schiff proved a gentle guide.
I was happy to encounter a much larger orchestra gathered onstage for the Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn is a composer frequently shrink-wrapped these days in the name of historical accuracy. But when Lobgesang had its premiere, it was with an orchestra of more than 170, featuring 20 trombones! (In deference to orchestras, the composer actually only calls for three in the published score.) He certainly knew what to do with them, though. The symphony hits pay dirt right out of the box, with one of the most memorable fanfares ever written. It serves as a motto theme throughout. There are three instrumental movements, followed by seven featuring chorus and soloists. Perhaps because the “last movement” isn’t a set of variations, but is made up instead from these shorter set pieces, Mendelssohn avoided the wrath of Beethoven’s ghost and (long avoided calling—ed.)1 Lobgesang a symphony. However one thinks of it, this was once one of the world’s most popular choral works and clearly deserves to be. When I look at available CDs, which are now numerous, I realize that Lobgesang is on its way back in a big way. It was wonderful to hear it live.
András Schiff led a solid reading, perhaps too slow in the second and third instrumental movements. He is not a conductor of great spark or lift, but he managed a fine blended sonority with our chorus and considerable cumulative power with the brasses, once the bigger moments got going. I’m not complaining. He dovetailed phrases nicely. I hadn’t been to a choral concert in Davies Hall for a while, though, and I can report that projection screens are now installed above the corners of the stage like quartz counter tops looking to decapitate you. .But they were unobtrusively useful for understanding the text, once I convinced myself they would stay put. Just enough of the text was flashed up to follow its general direction.
Among the soloists, Jennifer Mitchell, a light-voiced soprano and Margaret Lisi, just a shade darker-timbered, blended beautifully. But Tenor Michael Jankosky was simply electrifying in his recitative, “The night is departed.” This dramatic, tremolo-and-terror-riven scene seems nearly a precursor of Die Walküre in its impact. Jankosky managed to be earnest, noble and dignified without the slightest suggestion of pomp or preciousness. It’s easy for a singer’s ego to get in the way of his “acting”. That didn’t happen here. Instead, one heard in Jankosky’s voice a sense of acute and believable metaphysical fear. It took the listener way beyond the figure onstage. Bravo!
The evening ended with many bravos. Mendelssohn knew what he was doing. Lutheran though he may have been—and he took this seriously—he knew how to express joy. And that’s what 2500 people carried into the night. Lobgesang is back. I wasn’t the only member of the audience bouncing down the stairs humming that fanfare!
- see Mark Evan Bonds, “The Flight of Icarus: Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang,” Benedict Taylor, ed., Mendelssohn, London and New York, 2016, pp. 245ff.; reprinted from Mark Evan Bonds, ed. After Beethoven: Imperatives of Originality in the Symphony, Cambridge, Mass., 1996, pp. 73-108. ↩