THE MUSIC MAN
With Seán Martinfield
MOZART and HAYDN - Voices at the
March 18, 2006
Presentation is everything. With room for the overt and subtle
- concert planning, set-up and etiquette is a fine art and multiplex
pursuit. From its sweeping multi-tiered corner glass-encased façade
to the bright lights and always-polished brasses gracing its somewhat-Hollywood
entrance, San Francisco's Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall luxuriates
in her reputation as fairest in the land. In residence, the San
Francisco Symphony is right at the top of The List marked, "World
Class", as is the much-celebrated conductor, Michael Tilson
Thomas. Based on the recently announced schedule for 2006-2007,
a pair of Season Tickets may be the best investment ever made.
As always, the Symphony proudly hosts a stunning array of guest
conductors, orchestras and ensembles, international and home-grown
celebrities, and those whose names you may not yet recognize but
whose résumés merit consideration. Among this long
list of the exceptionally gifted are the seasoned veterans, those
in the line of succession, and the occasional flashers of illusive
genius. At the recent presentation of Mozart's "Mass In C-Major,
Coronation", fine art met up with fine exposition, thoughtful
planning yielded out-of-this-world results, a star was born, genius
was applauded, and the (literally) come-from-behind took the Crown.
We were royally set-up for "The Coronation Mass". For
the first half of the program, guest conductor Martin Haselböck
selected several rare gems, each having debuted during the London
sojourns of Franz Joseph Haydn. Starting with his musical clap
of thunder from 1792, "The Storm" lifted our gaze towards
the raised Symphony Chorus hovering above and behind the orchestra.
En masse, one assemblage with four inseparable quadrants of harmony,
they tempted our palates toward a cache of vintage theatrics -
the Rococo bon-bons of the Sacred and the Secular. The winds are
roaring, the main is bounding and "Hell's genius [could it
Satan?] roams the regions of the dark." A 4-part
scream rises from the choral ranks - "Hark!" A sudden
measure of "blessed calm" returns. Has Evil been thwarted?
No. For, behold, the ol' devil moon darkens again and - BLAM!
- "Hark!" The tonality climbs higher; the resonant voices
echoing the fury of the elements, the disparity of the earthbound,
and (somewhere in the overtones) the plea of heralding angels
begging Heaven's forbearance. Across the channel, in the meantime,
the wily French sharpen blades of icy steel for the masses who
laud the Divinely-Ordained coronet.
Onto Haydn's, "Scena di Berenice". Enter the Soprano.
Christine Brandes is our virtuous heroine, and through the next
325 measures and six key changes, we shall be made privy to her
Maiden's Prayer. Alone, desolate, in a billowing and ballooning
Madonna-blue ballgown, Berenice ponders, "What confused fantasies
hold me captive?" Indeed. Her lament? A tempestuous 12-minute
cantata on the familiar subject, "The Man That Got Away".
In this Kingdom, she could have lived forever as faithful spouse
to the Son, but for the fact - she is the peculiar delight of
his Father. If only she could drink from the magic spring, the
waters of Lethe, and partake in its miraculous promise of change,
she could rise above these earthly and passionate dilemmas and
remain forever lost in wonder. Instead, she prays, "Help
me end my life by overwhelming me with sorrows." According
to legend, that's exactly what happened.
"Stupida!" she says of this unrequited love.
To unveil the depths of her misery, Haydn then launches Berenice
into a 2+ octave romp, forcing her to cartwheel, leap and swan-dive
from Low B-flat to High C, without benefit of bungee cord or net.
The needs of women like that, those dramatically-inclined coloraturas
(and we who worship them), are insatiable. Mozart knew this when
re-gifting his beautiful Fiordiligi the same set of notes, re-stacking
them into "Come Scoglio" (like a rock!), plunging a
half-step deeper into the décolletage with an additional
low-hanging bauble - the A below Middle C. Taking a deep breath,
Ms. Brandes wafted through the fiery cadenzas, diversified her
options, and rang the bell on Measure 313's High-C. We couldn't
let her go. Conductor Haselböck escorted her back for more
bows than anyone expected. A star was born. Everyone in the string
section agreed, applauding as they do on such occasions with their
bows. Very rare. "La Stupenda!"
So much Legend surrounds the actual scribbling-out and first-time
presentations of Mozart's "Coronation Mass". Tonight,
it doesn't matter. The preceding works have been keenly selected;
the entire focus, the point of view and manner of presentation
judiciously constructed. The common threads running through the
works are of a celestial variety. Planned or not, Ms. Brandes
has become the "Mary figure". Returning to the stage,
humbly and sincerely as the Quartet's "Soprano", we
all understood the Fates had unleashed the Diva. The Chorus knew
it, too, standing straight and remaining still - again, as one
formidable force, never twitching, never rolling the eyes
free of all editorial. And perfect.
Oddly enough, during a half-hour's view of the quartet facing
the House, one starts to notice bits and pieces of personality
and tell-tale smoke-signal puffs of energy. Because of her obvious
success as the fully-realized "Berenice", it was odd
for us to observe Ms. Brandes, the Actress, morph into the relative
Anonymity of, "the Soprano". Though her well-modulated
/ team-player contributions made for a noble attempt at balancing
the ensemble, the Quartet's other members did not rise to the
occasion, nor were they up to par, and proved to be a few rungs
down on the ladder. The bios looked great but, in contrast to
Ms. Brandes, the overall renderings of the other three never got
much beyond pleasant and efficient. Mezzo-soprano Jane Irwin was
occasionally inaudible, doggedly stoic, and overwhelmed in too-too-red
Thus, by design or default, with Brandes' crystal tones now soaring
above the orchestra and the magnificent assemblage of Seraphim
that is the Symphony Chorus behind her, the Soprano of this "Coronation
Mass" manifested into the Mary crowned and pronounced, "Queen
of Heaven". Exercising his prerogative, Conductor Haselböck
opted to include Mozart's "Ave Verum" during which the
name Mary occurs twice and that of Jesus - once. Again, synchronicity
and certain choices support and magnify a stream of conclusions.
It does not matter if commonly held mystical notions of Mary's
formal installation as "Queen of Heaven" are the driving
impulses of Mozart's "Coronation Mass". His rent was
due and a commission was at hand.
Still, it doesn't cost anything to dream. Maybe, just maybe,
his Mass was created to celebrate the day when a long-revered
painting of Mary (still sitting on the altar of Maria Plain, a
neighborhood church down the road) got all spruced-up with a new
crown on her head and then, some time later, was officially installed
and dedicated - with absolutely no reason to attach significance
to whatever day he signed-off on the manuscript and certain monies
were exchanged. Later on, within Mozart's lifetime, a son and
grandson of Empress Maria Theresa (mother of Marie Antoinette
of France and major Mother and major Queen of the Holy Roman Empire)
may have requested its performance on the day the crown passed
to them. If so, since other "Coronation Masses" were
readily available and already paid-for, then what was being conjured
or invoked in the selection and performance of this Mass was Ultimate
Female Energy. For these not-so-confident divinely-ordained ascendants
to the Thrones of Hungary and Bohemia it is a particular Mary
who is invoked, beseeched for guidance and employed as Intercessor.
It is the Queen of Heaven they need; the Queen of the Apostles
and her guiding hand in their reign - just as their mother and
grandmother - Maria Theresa, Empress - had dominated and controlled
the Holy Roman Empire until the day she was not just merely dead,
but, really, most sincerely dead.
Tonight, however - who remembers / who cares? The end-results
were stellar. Give the crown to our magnificent San Francisco
Symphony Chorus and to its conductor, Vance George. In Reality,
"The Coronation Mass" is nothing more than a Missa Brevis,
a brief and catchy, magnificent collection of totally appropriate
and acceptable tunes. An exercise in Supreme Etiquette.