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Haydn and Mozart, with plenty of pep
- Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, May 6, 2005
Conducting and dance bear a family resemblance under most circumstances, but not many conductors draw the connection as closely as Paul McCreesh. The British early-music specialist led the San Francisco Symphony through a mostly splendid program of music by Haydn and Mozart in Davies Symphony Hall on Wednesday night, and the results were at once graceful and athletic.
To call McCreesh's podium style balletic would understate the case. Conducting without a baton, he twirls and prances through a series of fluid gestures that convey phrasing and rhythmic profile in a single sweep.
In the two Haydn works on the program -- the Symphony No. 70 and the "Harmoniemesse," both new additions to the Symphony repertoire -- this approach yielded readings that sounded wonderfully peppy and lithe, while still leaving room for the luminous elegance of Haydn's writing. The orchestral textures came through with almost angular transparency, but there was a soft, inviting feel to the instrumental playing as well, and McCreesh balanced these impulses skillfully.
Nowhere was that combination more telling than in the "Harmoniemesse," the last and perhaps most luxuriant of the six Mass settings that the composer produced annually during his final decade.
With Vance George's Symphony Chorus singing superbly and a fine quartet of vocal soloists providing pointed contributions, McCreesh imparted a sense of grandeur and spaciousness to the performance, particularly in the opening Kyrie.
Even more important, though, was the almost lusty energy that carried the music forward. For all its concentrated intricacy, this is one of Haydn's zippiest Mass settings -- the Credo especially scrambles breathlessly through its thickets of text -- and McCreesh's tireless vivacity underscored that aspect.
Soprano Christiane Oelze made a handsome Symphony debut, bringing a bright, corporeal tone to the opening of the "Et incarnatus est." Baritone Sanford Sylvan projected vibrantly and sounded touchingly at home as his assignment descended into bass territory. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Dudley and tenor Stanford Olsen also made sterling contributions.
The Symphony No. 70 finds Haydn in a contrapuntal frame of mind, and McCreesh's insistence on razor-sharp phrasing and crystalline textures helped out enormously. The most overtly learned stretches, the slow movement and the puckish finale, benefited most, but the opening movement -- all sharp elbows and melodic feints -- sounded terrific too.
The evening's one weak spot came before intermission, with an unfortunate account of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in which lush orchestral playing contended with solo turns that were ill-tuned (violinist Dan Nobuhiko Smiley) and undernourished (violist Geraldine Walther).
Audience sentiment seemed to be running high in recognition that this was Walther's last solo appearance as a member of the orchestra before she absconds next season to join the Takács Quartet. And indeed, Walther's countless fans will have many happy memories of her artistry to fall back on in years to come, even if this is not among them.
E-mail Joshua Kosman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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©2005 San Francisco Chronicle