Vital Stravinsky symphonies in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, Haydn: Nicholas Phan (tenor), Tyler Duncan (baritone), Oliver Herbert (cello), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 28.9.2019. (HS)StravinskyCanticum sacrum; Symphony of Psalms; Symphony in Three Movements

Haydn — Cello Concerto No.2 in D major

It may or may not have been intentional, but for this program with iconic composers of their eras, Michael Tilson Thomas chose the less-familiar. Not only were the works engagingly performed, but the audience could witness the San Francisco Symphony piecing itself together over the course of the concert, heard Thursday in Davies Symphony Hall.

With a nod to Haydn, the focus was on Stravinsky, opening with the seldom-heard Canticum sacrum (written for the 1955 Venice Biennale) that omits violins and cellos, but includes a pipe organ. Similarly, Symphony of Psalms – also religious, for chorus and orchestra – has no violins and violas.

The concert’s finale, Symphony in Three Movements, fields a full orchestra. Written in 1945, the year Stravinsky became a U.S. citizen, it incorporates American accents to go along with the ostinatos and jaunty Russian rhythms that marked his style from the early ballets. (Sharp-eared listeners would certainly recognize a touchstone for contemporary composer John Adams style. The broadly rocking rhythms of the symphony’s opening and closing movements certainly informed Adams’s Lollapalooza.)

In any case, it made a terrific impact, not only for formidable playing and conducting, but because the mighty sound surpassed what preceded it. The rhythms seemed to light a fire under Tilson Thomas and the ensemble, resulting in flash, panache, and irresistible energy.

The only non-Stravinsky work, Haydn’s Cello Concerto No.2, also omits some instruments — trumpets and trombones — but it still has richness of tone, to which the conductor added his own elegance. The soloist, Oliver Herbert, is a local boy who was a member of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra before embarking on a solo career. He played with consummate grace and sophistication, and negotiated Haydn’s technical challenges with assurance, not so much to show off (although those sleekly articulated high passages were certainly impressive) but to find refinement. Tilson Thomas kept the orchestra’s presence subdued, although the pulse moved nicely.

With its usual precision and fluency, the chorus excelled in the Symphony of Psalms, especially infusing the finale — the ‘Alleluia’ of Psalm 150 — with a sense of pure devotion. That suited the composer’s approach, which avoids the joyful exultation of most hallelujahs in favor of rich spirituality, and the result was moving.

Canticum sacrum was written to be performed in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, which — Tilson Thomas pointed out in opening remarks — echoes a good deal longer than does the acoustic of Davies Hall. Davies’s missing resonance lent an austere air to a piece that needs to reverberate, as it did when this conductor led it in 1999 in the city’s Grace Cathedral — the only other San Francisco Symphony performance.

That said, tenor Nicholas Phan and baritone Tyler Duncan nicely spun out their intertwining lines, and the chorus did its job. Stravinsky’s creative orchestration melded with the organ’s timbre, even if the results didn’t quite achieve liftoff like the other works.

Harvey Steiman

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