it has been 20 years since Sir Andrew Davis
last led the San Francisco Symphony, he seemed
right at home and the orchestra for its part
sounded as if it were ready to follow him
anywhere. Davis, once conductor of both the
BBC and the Toronto symphonies, now music
director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, drew rich
textures and big climaxes in the big works
that opened and closed the evening. Their
fireworks and dramatic intensity just made
the spare orchestration and otherworldly beauty
of countertenor David Daniels' singing in
the cantata Ich Habe Genug all the
with a flourish, Davis introduced his own
orchestration of the Passacaglia and Fugue
in C minor. Bach wrote it for organ and
Davis, himself an organist when he was a student
at the Royal College of Music, is only the
most recent to transcribe the piece for a
full-scale symphony orchestra. Most famously,
Respighi and Stokowski found the work's dense
textures irresistible, making big romantic
fantasies of it.
are the first performances of Davis' version
which, on first hearing, seems more concerned
with reflecting the sort of voice mixing that
organists use to put their own stamp on a
performance. The first statement of the eight-bar
passacaglia theme, for example, is sounded
by piano, played staccato, and cellos, bowed
pianissimo. The sonic effect is like a strobe
flashing against a misty background. The instrumental
combinations change with each of Bach's 20
variations, first tossing the theme between
the cellos and basses, weaving the counterpoint
through the bass clarinet and bassoons, moving
into the higher woodwinds, doubling them with
the harp, and finally getting to the high
strings. Eventually, the brass enters in a
sustained passage that feels like a contrapuntal
chorale, and the passacaglia reaches a mighty
climax that shakes the hall like an organ
at full tilt.
orchestration through the complex fugue, which
is based upon the same eight-bar theme as
the passacaglia, is just as colorful. At times
I was put in mind of Webern's extraordinary
transcription of the Ricercare à
6, except that Webern tosses the ball
from instrument to another in mid-phrase where
Davis takes a more organic approach. In the
brightness and distinctness of instrumental
color, Davis' transcription is almost athletic,
like a dancer taking ever more audacious leaps.
The San Francisco Symphony responded to the
conductor's almost manic podium style with
playing of uncommon precision, building to
an enormous finish.
smaller forces -- four violins, two violas
and cellos, a bass, a harpsichord and a solo
oboist -- gave the Bach cantata an immediate
sense of intimacy. That was perfect for Daniels,
whose silken voice and supple phrasing gave
the arias a shimmer few vocalists can match.
His unerring intonation and free, easy coloratura
make the music feel totally natural, and his
sound is so pure and creamy that one easily
forgets that this is a man singing in falsetto.
kept things moving without any sense of rushing.
William Bennett, the Symphony's principal
oboe, invested the wonderful opening melody
with a quietly soulful turn and then, as Daniels
picked it up, spun gorgeous arabesques around
the countertenor's sustained lines. In the
slower second aria, Daniels made the successive
repetitions of Schlummert ein ("Slumber
now") float ever higher, not in pitch but
in the delicacy of touch, and in the final
aria, Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod
("I look with joy to my death") the interplay
between voice and oboe in the contrasting
middle section was nothing short of exquisite.
from Bach to Dvorak could be jarring, but
the Symphony No. 7 is dark Dvorak, minor-key,
tragic Dvorak, more evocative of an ominous
forest than the wide-open spaces of his more
often-played works, and it balanced well with
the opening C-minor Bach on this program.
Davis threw himself into the music, and if
some of the pages went by with less inflection
than one could hope for, the finale built
to an inexorable climax.
has an eye-catching presence on the podium.
He makes big gestures and there's a certain
athleticism in his body movements. The result
sometimes ramps up the music with more voltage
than might be necessary, but it's never dull.
This program was completely satisfying.