DOA in Moscow, but now very much alive

11.01.14
Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Incident Light

By Mike Greenberg

Let this be a warning to any composer of a symphony, a piano concerto or an opera: Do not allow the première to be given in Moscow. A San Antonio unveiling might be a better bet.

Two of the major works on the San Antonio Symphony’s program Oct. 31 in the Tobin Center were first performed in Moscow, where they were both flops. The critics generally savaged both P.I. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 (1878) and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s first large-scale work, the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1892), and audiences didn’t respond with any greater warmth. Today, of course, Tchaikovsky’s symphony is a well-loved standard, and Rachmaninoff’s concerto (in its revised form of 1917) is widely appreciated. The original version of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Forza del destino also had its première in Moscow (1862), and it, too was a flop. Verdi revised it twice, and the now-familiar overture on the symphony’s program was appended to his final version of 1869. The concert opened with the second of the season’s “American Preludes” commissions, Antonio Carlos DeFeo’s brief but fetching Promenade. Music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing was at the helm.

The concerto soloist, the Russian-born  American pianist Kirill Gerstein, was the 2010 recipient of the Gilmore Artist Award,  arguably the world’s most prestigious honor  for a pianist. Remembered locally for  top-notch performances of the two Brahms  concerti on consecutive nights two seasons  ago, he returned to give a lovingly shaped  account of Rachmaninoff’s underexposed  Concerto No. 1. Once again Mr. Gerstein  produced a rich, clear, pingy tone. His clean  articulation in the most demanding passages  imparted a coolness that was complemented  by the warmth of his personal, flexible  phrasing. The piano line floated weightlessly  in the andante (which also benefited from  excellent solo work by associate principal  horn Molly Norcross) and danced playfully  in the finale. Mr. Gerstein’s solo encore was  Rachmaninoff’s Melody from the Morceaux  de fantaisie, Op. 3, of 1892. 

In Tchaikovsky’s symphony, Mr. Lang-Lessing kept his eye on the big picture. Fussing over details was less evident than a firm sense of direction, a seamless flow and excellent tempo relations — sometimes a bit slower than the norm, but often faster. It was a compelling performance, from the ominous “fate” theme that opens the turbulent, emotionally disturbed first movement to the breathtaking, jet-propelled finale. The strings delivered the third movement’s quick pizzicati with admirable precision and substantial tone, and Mr. Lang-Lessing took advantage of the H-E-B Performance Hall’s superior acoustics by extending the dynamic range down to a ghostly but still audible pppp in a couple of places. Splendid solo work came from Paul Lueders, visiting in the first oboe part. He earned his Master of Music degree from the New England Conservatory last spring.

True to its name, Mr. DeFeo’s Promenade, was a carefree stroll, easy on the ears, and enterprising in its orchestral colors within a mostly pastel palette. The piece attained two brief dramatic peaks before closing gently, and seemingly in mid-thought. 

The concert revealed some new adaptations to the H-E-B Performance Hall’s acoustics. The platform accommodating the brass and percussion has been given an apron, perhaps helping the woodwinds in front of it to project more sound into the hall. The orchestra was seated more compactly than in previous concerts. The double-basses, moved a few feet arther from the side wall of the shell, lost the boominess that had afflicted some notes previously. The first pit lift was raised to stage level to accommodate the piano, and the resulting forestage may have helped aim more sound to the mezzanine  and balcony. The front rank of violin desks was  placed immediately behind the line between stage  and forestage, and that position worked pretty well. 

From my seat on the fourth row of the mezzanine,  the sound as a whole was more open and better- balanced than it had been before, though loud tutti  passages were still a little boxed-in.

But what a difference a row makes! Moving after  intermission to a vacated seat on the third row at the  extreme left of the mezzanine, I heard a considerably  more-open, three-dimensional sound with a good  sense of envelopment, and the sound remained fairly  open even in Tchaikovsky’s loudest passages.  As  before, instrumental timbres were faithfully  projected, and solo lines had a pleasant halo. The  sound was still on the cool side, not as luxurious as  the Dallas Symphony’s McDermott Concert Hall,  but more than agreeable — and quite a lot more listenable than, say, the Chicago Symphony’s Orchestra Hall. Probably further improvements are still to come as Mr. Lang-Lessing experiments with seating and the musicians adjust their technique to the new environment. It’s still too early to pronounce definitive judgment on the acoustics, but early concerns do seem to be falling away.