Yesterday afternoon Symphony Parnassus presented the first concert in its four-concert season for 2011–2012 in Herbst Theatre. The featured soloist was Amos Yang, Assistant Principal cellist for the San Francisco Symphony performing Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 104 in B minor, which was the last of his concerto compositions. This is also the last work that Dvořák wrote during his tenure as the Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York between 1892 and 1895.
While this concerto is not one of Dvořák’s “explicitly American” works (like the Opus 95 E minor symphony or the Opus 96 F major string quartet), it is a work of highly positive energetic spirits in its outer movements, separated by Dvořák at his most lyrical in the middle Adagio ma non troppo movement. It is highly formal in its use of orchestral introductions, but Dvořák also showed a keen ear for the interplay of the diverse cello sonorities against those of the accompanying ensemble. Yang showed a solid command of the full gamut of those cello sonorities, along with a firm attentiveness to Music Director Stephen Paulson in shaping the overall tone of the concerto.
The Parnassus ensemble combines both amateurs and professionals. Under Paulson’s leadership, however, they all share a serious respect for discipline. Thus, while there may have been an occasional lapse in string intonation or the entry of a wind solo, there was no questioning the commitment of the ensemble as a whole to provide the necessary context for Yang’s solo work. One suspects that Dvořák-the-Conservatory-Director would have been proud to experience this level of dedication to this final concerto.
The two compositions in the first half of the concert were far less familiar and, in many respects, made for more ambitious undertakings. In These Stones Horizons Sing extended the resources of a full orchestra with a mixed choir (Shulamit Hoffmann’s Viva La Musica!) and baritone soloist (Jordan Eldridge). Karl Jenkins composed the work on a commission for the opening of the Wales Millennium Centre in November of 2004. It is a cycle of settings of four texts by Welsh poets: “Agorawd” (overture) by Menna Elfyn, “Llwyd” (grey) by Grahame Davies, “Eleni ganed” (born this year), again by Elfyn, and “In these stones horizons sing” by Gwyneth Lewis. As can be seen from the titles, the libretto is a mixture of Welsh and English.
While the score requires a large ensemble, Jenkins’ approach to instrumentation is highly transparent. In many respects this proved more challenging to the ensemble than did Dvořák’s thicker textures. However, the work was relatively short; and Paulson maintained a sure sense of tempo in its journey through its four poems. The only serious problem was that the house lights were too dim to allow one to read the texts being sung. Between the unfamiliarity of the Welsh language, a certain lack of clarity from the chorus, and some general problems of overall balance, one could hardly appreciate the texts that constituted the raison d’être of the composition. One could, however, appreciate Jenkins’ ear for sonority; and that offered much to enjoy over the brief duration of this piece.
The opening work on the program, Ottorino Respighi’s suite, Trittico Botticelliano, also posed the challenge of highly transparent textures. In contrast to the orchestral sprawl of his “Roman trilogy” (pines, fountains, and festivals), Respighi conceived this interpretation of three of the most famous works of Sandro Botticelli (“La Primivera,” “L’adorazione die Magi,” and “La nascita di Venere”) for chamber orchestra. This meant that any problems with intonation were more exposed, but Paulson’s direction of a reduced ensemble still did considerable justice to the overall conception of the work. The middle movement was particularly appropriate to the season, drawing on both Nativity carols and the Advent antiphon “Veni, veni Emmanuel.”
At a time when Respighi’s music is often dismissed as old-fashioned hack work, it is also worth considering his setting of the birth of Venus in the context of late twentieth-century modernism. In this score we can appreciate why Philip Glass made it a point to reject the term “minimalism” in favor of “music with repetitive structures.” Respighi’s setting draws heavily on an ostinato texture behind an extended cantus firmus, almost in the manner of a latter-day embellishment of Notre Dame organum. This is not to suggest that Respighi may be a “distant ancestor” of either Glass or later composers who followed a similar path (including San Francisco’s own Erling Wold). Rather, it is a cautionary observation that “revolutionary novelty” is not always as “novel” (or, for that matter, “revolutionary”) as one might think!