This afternoon at Herbst Theatre the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO) began its run of three free Main Stage Concerts to ring in the New Year. The title of the concert was Dial M for Music, because all three of the composers on the program had last names beginning with the letter “M.” They represented the familiar, the not-so-familiar, and the brand new.
The most familiar work on the program was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 364 sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, featuring solo parts for violin and viola, taken by guest artists Scott St. John and Sharon Wei, respectively. Conductor Benjamin Simon gave this a brisk and spirited account through which the soloists played off not only against each other but also against the intimacy of a chamber orchestra setting in which every voice matters, even when they combine into a well-integrated blend. Following a classical tradition, both soloists played their respective ensemble parts when not involved with their solo work, conveying the overall impression that making the music was more important than individual display.
Mozart scored K. 364 to accompany the soloists with a string ensemble, two oboes, and two horns. This same collection of instruments also served the world premiere on the program, “That Obscure Object of Desire,” composed by Harold Meltzer on commission from SFCO. Meltzer took his title from a 1977 film by Luis Buñuel in which the female lead (the “obscure object of desire” of the male lead) was played by two different actresses, each of whom assumed a distinctively different personality. He thus approached the solo work of the violin and viola in terms of differing “personalities” for basically similar sonorities.
It is unclear how successful Meltzer was in establishing this distinction, but it was definitely the case that the accompanying ensemble displayed a stunning palette of differing sonorities. His use of the pairs of winds and brass tended to be sparing, usually to highlight coloration of the string effects, particularly when those effects involved evoking the ghostly sounds of upper harmonics. There was also a considerable amount of rapid-fire arpeggiation, perhaps intended to capture the thwarted desired of Buñuel’s male protagonist. The overall structure was highly episodic, as if each episode captured a different “shade” of that male’s desire and the response of that dual-personality female.
The result was as fascinating as it was engaging. My only criticism is that, in his introductory remarks, Simon explained that Meltzer used vividly worded phrases in place of tempo descriptions. Since each of those phrases identified one of the episodes, it would have been nice to see them printed in the program book.
The not-so-familiar work on the program was the ninth sinfonia for string ensemble in C major, composed in 1823 by a thirteen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. I recently wrote about a recent recording of all of these sinfonias, observing that they involve a prodigious amount of technical display by all of the string section without very much rhetoric to draw in the listener. In Simon’s concert setting one could appreciate the spatial qualities that guided Mendelssohn’s approach to a full string orchestra and the ways in which he would divide up parts in different ways as each movement unfolded. In other words this is music that fares much better in a concert performance than it does on a recording, and Simon deftly disclosed all of those spatial qualities that give this sinfonia its own original and appealing voice.
Once again SFCO offered a festive approach to the coming year, whetting audience taste for their future Main Stage Concerts.