Explosion of orchestral and vocal color in San Francisco from works by Simon, Price, Brahms and Franck

United StatesUnited States Various: Melody Wilson (mezzo-soprano), San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Anthony Trecek-King: director), San Francisco Symphony / Earl Lee, Akiko Fujimoto, Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser (conductors). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 17.2.2022. (HS)

Melody Wilson (mezzo-soprano) and Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser (conductor) in Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody © Stefan Cohen

Carlos SimonAMEN!
Florence Price – Symphony No.3 in C minor
BrahmsAlto Rhapsody
Traditional (arr. Jack Perla) – ‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord’, ‘Give Me Jesus’, ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’
FranckLe Chasseur maudit

Michael Morgan, longtime conductor of the Oakland Symphony, had prepared to lead the San Francisco Symphony in a concert originally scheduled for 2020. Fate intervened: the pandemic postponed the concert, and then Morgan died unexpectedly in August 2021.

Conductor Michael Morgan (c) Marco Sanchez

To its credit, San Francisco kept the program for the 2022 calendar and, in a brilliant touch, entrusted three young conductors to bring it to life. Did they ever. The orchestra sounded robust and polished, and delivered everything with thorough commitment.

Typical of his years in Oakland, Morgan’s program embraced a remarkably diverse range of music that somehow made perfect sense. Who else might have proposed a lineup that surrounded Florence Price’s expansive Symphony No.3 and Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody with tone poems that evoked a Pentecostal Sunday service in one case and a hunting party gone bad in another? And let’s add three new settings of hymns popular in African-American churches, arranged and orchestrated for the same forces Brahms used in his piece.

Morgan spoke on camera about why he chose this music. The video, projected at the top of the concert, explained that the through-line was religious spiritualism as seen via different lenses. All focused on aspects that are universal, from the joy of Carlos Simon’s 2017 AMEN!, which opened the concert, to the wages of sin in César Franck’s 1882 Le Chasseur maudit.

The spiritual center of the evening, a quietly fervent performance of the Alto Rhapsody from 1869, was followed by three hymns arranged at Morgan’s request by Jack Perla, a composer steeped in jazz and classical music who has done commissions for several high-tier opera companies. Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, a resident conductor with San Francisco Symphony, brought warmth and poise to all of it. The moment in the Brahms when the men’s chorus joins in, among the most touching measures of music ever written, felt like a balm had covered a troubled world.

Mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson may not quite own the bottom range of a full-fledge alto, but she conveyed the meaning of the music and words. Her intensity was visible with facial and body language, and high notes floated and soared with ease. Perla’s arrangements managed to meld the plush sound of Brahms’s orchestrations – and the contrast of the men’s chorus – with the gentle pulse of the spirituals.

‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord’, which Marian Anderson sang in her historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, opened the set. Perla’s glorious orchestral setting seemed to stop time. Especially effective, the traditional hymn ‘Give Me Jesus’ got extra power from a slow and graceful approach. ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’ put an ardent exclamation point on this mini-suite. Its tune, known as ‘Nettleton’, also appears in several Charles Ives pieces.

For the orchestra alone, the highlight of the evening was the Price symphony, which Morgan properly categorized as ‘a masterpiece’. Conductor Akiko Fujimoto, music director of the Mid-Texas Symphony, brought precision and tremendous energy to the music, wrangling the oversized orchestra into a powerful engine.

Price was a pioneer, the first African-American woman to get a performance by a major American orchestra (her Symphony No.1 by the Chicago Symphony in 1933). Her music is experiencing a renaissance as more classical presenters seek works by composers neglected because of race, and it is about time we heard great ensembles play works such as this Symphony No.3 from 1939.

The piece bursts with assurance in musical invention, ear-caressing tunes, solid construction and the ability to get a rise out of an audience. All four movements were applauded, and no one seemed to complain about it. Self-composed, folk-like tunes made some moments resemble Dvořák’s ‘American’ works, but her style is more concise than the Czech composer’s was. The Allegro, a Juba (a jolly African-American dance), appears in several of her works the way European composers used other lively dance structures. The performance argued eloquently for making this symphony part of classical music’s central rotation.

Earl Lee, assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, opened and closed the proceedings with Carlos Simon’s AMEN! and César Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit.

The 100-piece orchestra swaggered like a jazz big band in AMEN! If it felt a bit like Gershwin at his most rambunctious (think Porgy and Bess or An American in Paris), it spun the dial on a range of rhythms and bluesy gestures with even more gusto. Perhaps it carried a bit too much density, but the opening trio of jazz-band trombones, led by Nick Platoff, and jazzy solos by trumpeter Guy Piddington hit their marks.

The concert’s finale addressed the flip side of Simon’s unfettered joy. Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit portrays a hunting party on a Sunday, to the participants’ everlasting regret for their sin. It opens with a series of hunting-horn fanfares, gleefully executed by the French horns against the sound of church bells, enthusiastically romps into galloping horse rhythms, and ends with the solemn accusations of a clarinet (superbly played by Jerry Simas).

After all that, there were no recriminations. For my part, they could have played all of it again, right then.

Harvey Steiman

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