Last night in Herbst Theatre the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) gave the final San Francisco performance in its landmark 35th season led by Waverly Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan, celebrating his 30th anniversary with PBO. To complement opening the season with a major (but long ignored) choral serenata from the eighteenth century, Alessandro Scarlatti’s La Gloria di Primavera (the glory of spring), McGegan chose to conclude the season with his annual venture into the nineteenth century, leading three choirs and three soloists in a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 52 (second) symphony in B-flat (whose score was not published until after the composer’s death). The vocal soloists were sopranos Dominique Labelle and Ashley Valentine and tenor Thomas Cooley; and the choral resources consisted of the Philharmonia Chorale (Director Bruce Lamott), the Stanford Chamber Chorale (Director Steven Sano), and the Chamber Chorus of the University of California at Berkeley (Visiting Director Magen Solomon).
As has already been observed, Mendelssohn did not call Opus 52 a symphony. He gave it the title “Lobgesang” (hymn of praise) with the subtitle “A Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible, for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra.” It was composed for a festival in Leipzig commemorating the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type system for printing and first performed on June 25, 1840 at St. Thomas Church (where Johann Sebastian Bach had worked as Kapellmeister). The performance also included a “Festgesang” (festival hymn), subtitled “Gutenberg cantata,” best known because Charles Wesley appropriated one of the themes for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
Mendelssohn was a ferociously productive composer. Perhaps he was driven by the prodigious number of compositions that Bach had produced, but he was clearly subjected by some force, demonic or angelic, to keep putting out new works. Once, when coaching his chamber music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, cellist Bonnie Hampton described him as “burning his candle at both ends;” and that is probably the perfect epithet for his feverish energy. (If a candle had been designed with more than two ends, he probably would have burned them, too.)
However, if we are frank about the situation, it is difficult to conceal the extent to which quantity had a tendency to overwhelm quality. There are, of course, a fair number of moments when his productivity rises about the routine. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that one will encounter many scholars dedicated to plumbing the depths of Opus 52, simply because it was produced out of an enthusiastic commitment not only to honor the ceremony of an occasion but also to get the job done on time.
Still, as we know from the bel canto operatic repertoire, commitment to performance can often compensate for shortcomings in composition. Last night that compensation was far more than sufficient on all fronts. McGegan kept things moving at a healthy clip, shaping every phrase with in-the-moment spontaneity that more than adequately distracted the listener from the work’s relatively limited vocabulary. The choral forces were similarly expressive, particularly in the contrapuntal passages, which may have been a bit too slavish to the models of Bach but were no less inspiring for that shortcoming. The soloists had to contend with more repetitions than seemed necessary. However, just as McGegan could tease out new perspectives in an evening consisting almost entirely of da capo arias (which is basically what the opening concert of the season was), he worked with each soloist to make sure that none of the repetitions came across as excessively repetitive. All this resulted in an occasion that was probably just as festive as that 1840 gathering in Leipzig, if not more so.
Since this was a program of nineteenth-century music, McGegan decided to devote the first half to Ludwig van Beethoven, featuring two seldom-performed works with the Philharmonia Chorale. Both of them were published late in life (and have three-digit opus numbers); but they were composed when Beethoven was in his mid-forties. The earlier, the Opus 118 “Elegischer Gesang” (elegiac song) was originally composed in 1814 for four voices and string quartet but holds up just as well for a small choir and a string ensemble. It sets only five lines of text (by Ignaz Franz Castelli). However, after having established that text, the voices launch into a sinuously chromatic fugue that, to contemporary ears, can almost be taken as an “omen” of the fugue that would begin the Opus 131 string quartet in C-sharp minor (which would not be written for over ten years).
The later choral selection was the 1815 Opus 112, “Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt” (calm sea and prosperous voyage), a single continuous piece that conjoins two short poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The first is a spooky reflection on a ship that cannot move for lack of either currents or wind and the desperation of not knowing when conditions will change. In the second poem, however, the ship is sailing over the bounding main (so to speak); and land is just coming into sight. McGegan was particularly skilled at establishing a sense of almost deathly silence for the first poem, thus reinforcing the joyous rhetoric of Beethoven’s setting of the second.
The evening began with the sort of music one tends to associate with Davies Symphony Hall, Beethoven’s Opus 72b, the third of the “Leonore” overtures that Beethoven composed for his opera that would eventually become his Opus 72 Fidelio. Mind you, last week Pablo Heras-Casado was conducting the San Francisco Symphony in performances of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and Jean-Philippe Rameau; so this may have been McGegan’s way of “restoring the balance.” He could not have delivered a more energetic performance, given more clarity than one usually experiences thanks to the PBO instrumental resources. (Clarity was also enhanced by having the first and second violins face each other, leaving one with a better appreciation of how Beethoven could make his string section sound like an energized string quartet.) The result was a thoroughly fresh reading of all-too-familiar music, the perfect warm-up for the ventures into the less familiar that would follow.