Posted on Sat, May. 07, 2005

Conductor packs Haydn with energy


It's hard to believe that the San Francisco Symphony hasn't played all of Haydn's music at least once in the orchestra's nearly 90-year history. Yet in Wednesday's concert at Davies Symphony Hall, two of the composer's works received their first-ever S.F. Symphony performances. Making their long-overdue debuts were Haydn's late-life Mass in B-flat major, "Harmoniemesse," and the composer's Symphony No. 70 in D major. The program, which repeats tonight, also includes Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major.

Both Haydn pieces represent the composer at the peak of his considerable powers. In particular, "Harmoniemesse" -- the last of Haydn's six Masses -- is masterfully constructed. Haydn didn't begin writing it until he was over 70, yet the work radiates youthful energy and optimism.

At just over 35 minutes, it's also mercifully short, elegant and economical. And, as conducted Wednesday by guest conductor Paul McCreesh, it made a stunning showcase for the orchestra and Vance George's S.F. Symphony Chorus.

McCreesh, the English conductor who is founder and artistic director of the Gabrieli Consort and Players, has earned a reputation as a top early music specialist. It's easy to see why. The conductor, who made his S.F. Symphony debut in 2000 with Handel's "Messiah," returned Wednesday in fine form, displaying a dynamic rapport with the orchestra and with Haydn's music.

This conductor apparently doesn't believe in letting the performance lag. McCreesh blazed through the "Harmoniemesse" with concentrated energy; tempos were brisk and the music was shaped with a sure hand, from the vigorous Kyrie to the glorious Agnus Dei.

The chorus and vocal soloists responded admirably to his direction. Pure-toned soprano Christiane Oelze and resonant baritone Sanford Sylvan made the strongest impressions, but mezzo-soprano Jennifer Dudley and tenor Stanford Olsen also contributed well. George and the Symphony Chorus presented a forceful united front.

In the first half, McCreesh's approach yielded similarly vibrant results in Haydn's Symphony No. 70. There was remarkable clarity and a sense of buoyancy in each of the work's four movements.

If Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante seemed like the cream filling between the two Haydn works, at least it was cream of a delicious variety. With the orchestra's own Dan Nobuhiko Smiley (violin) and Geraldine Walther (viola) as the well-calibrated soloists, the piece sounded wonderfully fresh and tuneful.

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