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Beethoven Festival: San Antonio Symphony

We're all brothers, till the music stops

February 11, 2012

'Alle Menchen werden brüder," Friedrich Schiller wrote in his famous "Ode to Joy." All men become brothers. In the real world, uh, nicht so viel,  as Schiller came to realize. But the aspiration is worth honoring from time to time, especially as raised to glorious heights by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony.

he San Antonio Symphony concluded its cycle of all the Beethoven symphonies with finely crafted accounts of the inspiring Ninth and the jolly Eighth for a near-capacity audience Feb. 10 in the Majestic Theatre. (The repeat on Feb. 11 was said to be sold out, and the Ninth-only matinee on Feb. 12 nearly so.)

As in the previous four installments of the cycle, music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing hewed to tradition and the composer’s instructions. These performances distinguished themselves not with willful new ideas but with vividly rendered details, canny tempo choices and close attention to articulation and balances. The strings sounded rich but wonderfully limpid in the Eighth, more substantial in the Ninth, for which extra desks of first violins, violas and cellos were deployed.

Mr. Lang-Lessing took fairly relaxed tempos in the first three movements of the Eighth, then pushed the pedal to the metal in the manic finale, which fell only a whisker short of Beethoven’s absurdly fast metronome marking. Mr. Lang-Lessing pushed the second movement of the Ninth somewhat faster than the composer demanded, by my reckoning, but the extra speed was more than justified by the extra snap in timpanist Peter Flamm’s hard-mallet whip cracks.

The slow movement of the Ninth was superbly made. The string chordings were radiant, and the conductor’s supple shaping of the tempo let the music float and billow like a summer cloud. Katharine Caliendo contributed an excellent horn solo.

The low strings evinced the timing, rhythms and inflections of a first-rate actor in their series of declamations at the start of the finale -- a first-rate actor such as the steely bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, who delivered the invitation to joyful singing with a cozy gemuetlichkeit that implied the singing would be accompanied by good working-class beer.

Tenor René Barbera’s youthful, stylish singing was a pleasure to hear. Soprano Maria Alejandres, remembered for her splendid Juliet in San Antonio Opera’s production of the Gounod chestnut last fall, soared ravishingly above the throng. Mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee made a fine impression, to the extent that the score allowed her to be heard.

The Mastersingers chorus, prepared by John Silantien, sang with confidence, precision and quite good tone.

Oh, and the explosion of cheers that broke out at the end doubtless would have been a shade less frenzied were it not for Julie Luker’s spirited work on the piccolo.

Mike Greenberg