Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Conservatory Orchestra, conducted by Scott Sandmeier, launched into its 2014–15 season of concerts with all guns blazing. The opening measures of the overture to Hector Berlioz’ Opus 23 opera Benvenuto Cellini burst on the scene with all the orgiastic abandon of the Roman Carnival that figures so significantly in the opera’s narrative. However, this overture covers a wide breadth of dynamic range as revelries recede into the statement of the primary theme just barely above the level of audibility. Diversity in dynamics was matched by Berlioz’ skill in not only managing but also imaginatively combining the full resources of an orchestral ensemble. This overture provides an orchestra with some of the most compelling rhetoric for establishing its own identity.
Sandmeier clearly appreciated the potential of this composition, even when its themes and motifs seem to bounce almost arbitrarily from one episode to another, sometimes flirting with hanging on beyond their being welcome. The brisk pace at which he led this overture clearly overcame any structural weaknesses that might have impeded the composer. The result was an overture as it should be, a dazzling display of sonorities to draw the listener into the narrative that it about to unfold. If the rhetorical flow of that narrative never quite matched the standard that was set by this overture, that was just as matter of Berlioz never quite realizing the opera as his imagination first inspired him. Under Sandmeier’s direction, the overture definitely prepared the audience for the remainder of the concert.
The major work on the program occupied the entire second half of the evening. This was Johannes Brahms’ Opus 68 symphony in C minor (the first). This was also music with considerable rhetorical intensity, albeit in a style markedly different from Berlioz, particularly in regard to Brahms’ meticulous attention to structural architecture. At the level of expressiveness, however, Sandmeier seemed to have had a bit more difficulty in balancing his resources.
Like the Berlioz overture, the Brahms symphony begins with an abundant outpouring of sonority, this time through an extended slow melody that seems to rise in register without any sense of an upper limit, played by the full string section against the pulse-like beat from the timpani. The intensity of this dramatism all takes place against the background of a choir of winds, whose steadiness contrasts with the striving motions of the strings. Last night, however, the strings were so powerful that the winds never really penetrated them during this crucial opening. Balance would subsequently be recovered in the second and third movements, but both outer movements seemed to contend with times when the winds never quite had their fair say. However, it is worth noting that the geometry of the stage layout situated the winds behind the full “wall” of the string section, since the overall shape ratio involved reduced width in favor of greater depth.
Fortunately, Sandmeier’s command of the symphony as a whole contributed much to getting beyond this one difficulty. His pace to the first movement was so energized that he could pull off the repeat of the exposition (this may well be the first time I have ever heard that repeat performed) without giving the sense of straining the overall duration. In the final movement he had a clear sense of how the second half emerges as an ascending series of climaxes. His control of energy was expertly managed to allow the final measures to resound with the full impact they merited.
The concerto for the evening was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 33 in A minor for cello and orchestra (his first). This was performed by second-year undergraduate Nicholas Denton-Protsack, currently studying under Jennifer Culp. The concerto is structured as a single uninterrupted movement in ternary form, with the final section exploring new rhetorical moods for the material in the opening section. The virtuoso passages for cello reveal themselves in the opening measure, and the soloist is rarely given particularly long intervals to regroup before launching into the next round of fireworks.
Fortunately, Denton-Protsack was utterly fearless in the face of all the challenges that Saint-Saëns set out in the score. More importantly, while he was always focused on his command of all the technical demands, he was equally connected to the full ensemble through both Sandmeier and the student Concertmaster. Last night’s interpretation of this score readily homed in on the sweet spot where the listener can appreciate the rich structural qualities of the concerto as a whole while also enjoying the virtuoso displays of the soloist. Denton-Protsack clearly enjoyed presenting his technical skills, but he seemed to enjoy the pleasure of being part of a larger group collectively committed to making music just as much.