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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield

MOZART and HAYDN - Voices at the
SF Symphony

By Seán Martinfield

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 be … 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 taffeta.

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.




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