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San Antonio Symphony, SLL, Ewa Kupiec

Webs of influence

November 17, 2012

San Antonio Symphony music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing opened the concert of Nov. 16 with neoclassicism in chaps and closed with real classicism in fine tailoring. In between came the very welcome return of pianist Ewa Kupiec in an uncommonly elegant account of Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G.

The items on the first half, Ravel’s concerto and Aaron Copland’s suite of dances from his “Rodeo” ballet score, “ were connected by far-reaching webs of influence that converged in Paris. After intermission came Mozart’s last symphony, No. 41 in C, known as the “Jupiter.”

Copland’s enduring popularity among American audiences stems in large measure from his appropriation of American folk tunes and idioms in scores such as “Rodeo,” “Billy the Kid” and “Appalachian Spring,” all of which evoke a distinctly American agrarian mythos.

But Copland’s most formative experience was his study with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris, in the early 1920s. Boulanger, in turn, had come under the influence of Igor Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, which revived the contrapuntal technique of the period we now call “baroque.” Copland soaked up the neoclassical style, which remained the framework for his music throughout his life, whether in the folksiness of the 1942 “Rodeo” or the serial techniques of “Connotations,” two decades later.

The neoclassical aspects of “Rodeo” seemed to take precedence over the Americana in Mr. Lang-Lessing’s clear-eyed but somewhat deliberate account of the score. There were a few moments of loose ensemble, but on the whole the orchestra was in excellent form. Notable solo contributions came from principal trombone Amanda Davidson, principal trumpet John Carroll, principal bass Thomas Huckaby and, in the lovely tune based on “I Ride an Old Paint,” oboist Hideaki Okada.

While the American Copland was absorbing French neoclassicism, the Frenchman Ravel was absorbing American jazz, all the rage in the Paris of the ‘20s. In 1928 he toured the United States and met George Gershwin, whose “Rhapsody in Blue” and Piano Concerto in F would leave traces all over Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, completed in 1931.

Ms. Kupiec previously appeared with the orchestra three years ago, playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto on Mr. Lang-Lessing’s second tryout before his appointment as music director. As before, they made a mutually sympathetic team.

Ms. Kupiec’s limitless technique served as an example of the art that conceals art, asserting itself less in dazzlement (though there was some of that, too) than in a gorgeous legato, a satiny touch, meticulous control of dynamics and a supple sense of rhythm. She brought unaffected but deeply affecting directness to the long unaccompanied waltz that begins the central slow movement.

The performance of Mozart’s miraculous symphony was most notable for the quality of sound that Mr. Lang-Lessing got from the orchestra. It was a creamy, integrated sound, the woodwinds and brass nearly twins of each other and blending seamlessly into the strings, which sounded more silken than ever.  The conductor didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but he did bring some interesting interpretive subtleties to the score -- in the trio of the third movement, for example, a slight broadening of the tempo added an insinuating emphasis to the woodwinds’ sighs. The finale’s complex weave of ideas came across with admirable clarity and vivacity.

The Majestic Theatre’s cloud projector was once again dark or absent. One hopes for a speedy return to action.

Mike Greenberg