December is high season for the performance of choral music, and every weekend of this month offers a cornucopia of choral
concerts. The San Diego Symphony and its customary ally the San Diego Master Chorale weighed in with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (understandably known as the “Choral Symphony”) Friday, Dec. 6, under the baton of the orchestra’s Associate Conductor Ken-David Masur.
Noting all the Christmas decorations in downtown San Diego on my way to the Jacobs Music Center, I thought it would be more appropriate were I going to a seasonal choral work such as Berlioz’ “L’Enfance du Christ” or Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” But once I saw how confidently the 36-year-old Masur was refreshing the stolid German repertory on his program, I quickly released my holiday nostalgia.
Masur started the evening with an exceptionally transparent, poised account of Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn,” an approach that made the listener aware of just how magnificently the composer orchestrated his deft, wide-ranging contrapuntal ideas (he wrote the variation cycle initially for two pianos). Even the familiar opening chorale theme had a lightness and sparkle I only occasionally hear in this piece.
Masur’s fluid conducting style revealed a consistent sensitivity to detail, but not in an overbearing fashion. He usually asked for less from the players—or at least for a more refined facsimile of what they were offering—so that when the texture exploded into a lustrous fortissimo, the contrast proved even more dramatic. The orchestra’s response on Friday was uniformly precise and enthusiastic.[php snippet=1]
This approach worked wonders on the Beethoven Ninth, which all too easily falls into overstatement and bombast. Flickering poignantly between light and dark, Masur’s opening movement sent off occasional illuminations of the ecstatic “Freude” that carries the final movement heavenward. In the Molto vivace, he made certain that martial rigor undergirded both its lyrical flow and the cascades of animated fughettas that grace that movement. Kudos to Horn Principal Benjamin Jaber and his dependable section for treading this minefield unscathed and to the woodwind principals whose burnished solos lavishly ornamented both inner movements.
In the final movement, the San Diego Master Chorale fused a powerful, well-balanced wall of choral sound that admirably complemented Masur’s interpretation of the Ninth. Beethoven’s choral scoring keeps the singers in their top range much of the time, which means that all too frequently the final movement of the Ninth becomes a scream fest. Chorale Director Gary McKercher’s thorough training of his choristers was evident in every phrase, allowing his sopranos to soar without strain and stay there without weakening. I even picked out the choir’s German text from time to time.
A laudable quartet of soloists filled out the finale, led by stentorian baritone Richard Zeller and topped by soprano powerhouse Measha Breuggergrosman. Tenor Robert Breault and mezzo Elizabeth DeShong completed this vibrant vocal ensemble.
Perusing the Symphony’s 2013-14 season brochure, I note that this concert marks Masur’s only appearance on the Jacobs Masterworks Series. In my imagination, I am savoring concerts in which he conducts works by the likes of Sibelius, Hindemith, Lutoslawski, and Carter. Perhaps next season this won’t happen just in my mind.