For thousands of years, cultures and civilizations have incorporated myth into their way of understanding life. Myths explain natural phenomena, teach morals, and symbolize spiritual truths; they chart the path of heroes and help to provide meaning for our own personal journey. Each generation of artists create their own renditions, and the Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio shared some by Gluck, Beethoven, and Mozart at their season finale this month (May 13) at the Tobin Center’s Carlos Alvarez Studio Theatre.
The concert program was beautifully poignant in how its expression of myth evolved. Gluck’s literal depiction of Orpheus blundering out of hell led into highly dramatic works by Beethoven and Mozart, where the interaction of melodic themes, the fragmentation of motives, and the recovery of stable tonal areas told their own stories. As the three pieces respectively grew less narrative in their undeviating rendition of myth, they evoked more and more an abstract sense of how collective our individual lives actually are.
“Orfeo ed Euridice” (1762), an opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), has never left the standard repertory. The opera is his most famous work, and the reforms he made in it were revolutionary to the early Classical period. By using voice to enhance plot and character development rather than to glorify the self-aggrandizing skills of singers, he put drama above all else. By doing away with dry recitative accompanied solely by continuo, he also used the orchestra to great effect. It would be a gross understatement to say that Richard Wagner owes the man a drink.
The San Antonio Chamber Orchestra played two selections from “Orfeo”: “Dance of the Furies” and “Chaconne.” The ensemble’s portrayal of the barbaric dance was aggressively clean in its frenetic passing of scales throughout. Even though the clarinet and bassoon sound unfortunately didn’t project in the hall, it was exciting to hear and see the musicians respond so well to Maestro Gemma New’s leadership. The “Chaconne” was also played with great alacrity, the string flourishes exciting and the repetitive noodles impressive in the violins and oboes.
Soloist Anton Nel joined the orchestra for the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Beethoven’s career began just as Mozart’s came to an end, and his style, though very much indicative of the Classical era, was rebellious and on the forefront of Romantic change. His fourth piano concerto is radical in its opening of solo piano rather than orchestral introduction, and its persistent three-note upbeat is a relative of his iconic fifth symphony. The second movement is the concerto’s most famous, programmatically serving as a link to Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” because it is so often compared to Orpheus’s taming of wild beasts.
The orchestra took to the “moderato” in the “allegro moderato” a bit too earnestly, consequently sounding slightly labored and unsteady at times, but overall they communicated quite nicely with Anton Nel. The second movement, “andante con moto,” was the musical highlight of the entire evening. The heavy, impending, dry opening in the strings served in stark contrast to the elastic and expansive playing of Nel. Each note Nel placed seemed to breathe a life of its own, telling its own intimate story as it led to the next note of a phrase; even his silences rang through the hall like they could be touched. The third movement’s syncopations could have used some more front-of-note clarity, but the orchestra’s exciting impetus of sound in combination with solo passages brought the audience to its feet long enough for Anton Nel to take three separate bows.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) had a major impact on music of the Enlightenment. His first compositions were published at the age of eight, and after years of performing, composing, and failing to find patronage, Gluck’s death in Vienna provided a job opening for him in 1787. By the time he composed the Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, “Jupiter” in 1788, his compositional style was in full bloom. Maestro New granted the musicians great freedom in their own leading of phrases in “Jupiter,” and concertmaster Francisco Fullana assumed the role with probity. At times disjunct, at other times excitingly together and cohesive, the ensemble performed with great agility. The combustive “allegretto” that gave the symphony its nickname was performed to great avail, with impressive woodwind solos and ensemble communication. If this machine of a movement could be recreated in the form of a vehicle, automotive enthusiasts would be over the moon (or Jupiter, rather).
In short, the evening of myth presented by the Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio was a success. An orchestral experience of both intimate and grand proportion, the effect was one of personal reflection and appreciation.