incident light

SA Symphony, SLL, Alexandre Da Costa

From factory floor to concert hall

March 9, 2013

A singularly attractive violin concerto, titled “Fire and Blood,” by the contemporary, very-American composer Michael Daugherty was the standout item in the San Antonio Symphony's concert of March 8, under music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing. The Canadian violinist Alexandre Da Costa was the fearless soloist in the concerto.

The concert closed with a collection of orchestral excerpts from Richard Wagner's four-opera, 15-hour "Ring of the Nibelungs." The Majestic Theatre’s clouds, on hiatus for several months, were once again scudding north-northeast in the starry sky.

Mr. Daugherty has been represented previously on these concerts, during Larry Rachleff’s brief but luminous tenure as music director, by the “Red Cape Tango,” from the Superman-inspired “Metropolis” Symphony; and “Le Tombeau de Liberace,” a manic, bizarre piano concerto.

“Fire and Blood” is stylistically far more sober. It is a musical interpretation of Diego Rivera’s great 1932-33 fresco, “Detroit Industry,” commissioned by Edsel Ford for a courtyard in the Detroit Institute of Arts. The two main panels of the fresco depict auto workers laboring nobly on a Ford Motor Co. assembly line. Labor occupies the foreground, befitting Rivera’s Communist sympathies, and vast industrial machinery looms behind them -- it is sometimes seen as threatening the workers, though the imagery strikes me as rather positive, suggesting a productive partnership of man and machine. Rivera might have been a Communist, but he knew which side his tortilla was buttered on. (The picture of labor amity would prove false a few years after the fresco was completed, when the United Auto Workers attempted to unionize Ford workers, and the company retaliated violently.)

Mr. Daugherty’s music evokes industrial machinery and the assembly line in insistently repeating ideas (which do not exactly repeat, but shift and grow) and in slashing staccato chords and metallic percussion sounds. Rivera’s Mexico appears in folkloric allusions, especially in the central slow movement, “River Rouge.” That movement opens with one of the concerto’s most memorable passages, a struggling, furrowed-brow statement for violin solo with marimba tremolos and harp glissandi.

The solo violin part demands considerable dexterity and stamina, and the intuition to find specific meanings in the nearly-repeating figures.  Mr. Da Costa served the piece exceptionally well with his robust tone and the intense, convicted quality of his performance -- it was apparent that he believed every syllable he played. He wins extra points for reacting to a broken string in the third movement by quickly switching instruments with guest concertmaster Stephanie Ardo.

There’s something either apt or perverse, or perversely apt, in Mr. Lang-Lessing's choice to program the Wagner hard on the heels of a festival devoted entirely to the antiWagner, Johannes Brahms.  But Mr. Lang-Lessing’s Wagnerian sympathies, and chops, were evident from his first try-out with this orchestra, in 2009, when he opened with a gorgeous, ideally gauged account of the Prelude and “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde.”

His assemblage of music from the “Ring” was less successful, partly because much of this music just doesn’t stand on its own feet very well in the absence of stagecraft and singing, partly because the Majestic’s dry acoustics made the heavily augmented brass sound a little harsh -- and partly because some of the excerpts, especially from “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküere,” didn’t seem well-enough prepared. Not that there’s much a conductor can do to make “The Ride of the Valkyries” sound any less vulgar than it is, and the “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” is nearly as irredeemable. (Sorry, but never having drunk the Bayreuth Kühl-Aid, I find much of Wagner to be a cheap exercise in profoundiness.)

The “Forest Murmurs” from Act II of “Siegfried” was beautifully made -- delicate, limpid, glowing. The bits from “Götterdämmerung” came off well, too. There was a wonderful sense of motion in the shaping of tempo and dynamics of “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.”  Principal trumpet John Carroll had a fine solo turn in the funeral music. The conductor’s fine sense of theater made itself felt in the Immolation scene.

Mike Greenberg