Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Conservatory Orchestra gave its first performance with its new Music Director, Scott Sandmeier, conducting. Sandmeier had given his “audition performance” this past February. He had prepared an ambitious program, coupling Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 piano concerto in G major (the fourth) with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 54 symphony in B minor (the sixth), each an imposing and challenging work in its own right and both introduced by a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” overture (Opus 26) that excelled in both expressiveness and attention to detail. The performance went down very well with the audience (present company included) and the faculty. Most importantly, however, Sandmeier made a good impression on the students in the orchestra itself, holding out the promise of a highly beneficial working relationship for all involved. When his appointment was announced the following April, the news was greeted positively by all involved.
Last night Sandmeier began his first season with the same programming skills that had made such an impression during his audition. He decided to begin by displaying the talents of the entire ensemble with the rich instrumental diversity of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral suite Ma mere l’Oye (Mother Goose). While we associate Mother Goose with nursery rhymes, she is actually in the title of Charles Perrault’s collection of fairy tales, Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose tales). Each of Ravel’s five movements is a brief piece associated with one of the stories in the book. Rather than provide a narrative account, the music is more reminiscent of the sort of full-page illustration one might find in a children’s book, capturing the essence of the story in a single image.
The music was originally composed as a four-hand piano composition for children. The original title included the subtitle “cinq pieces enfantines” (five children’s pieces); and they are equally suitable for well-intentioned amateurs (based on personal experience). Ravel orchestrated the movements in 1911. In 1912 he expanded the score for a ballet consisting of six tableau representations of the tales. He composed music for the sixth fairy tale and added a prelude and a series of interludes between the individual tableaux.
As in most concert occasions, last night’s performance presented the original 1911 orchestration. The score makes full use of the orchestra’s instrumental diversity, but it is notable for the transparency through which one appreciates the coloration of each instrumental sonority. Only in the final movement, “Le jardin féerique” (the fairy garden), does Ravel build a gradual crescendo whose climax amounts to “one grand sound,” rather than the details of the individual parts.
At last night’s performance Sandmeier managed his resources well. His tempo selections all tended to reflect the choices made for the piano version. His approach to balance facilitated following the thematic material as it moved, phrase by phrase, across the different instrumental sections. The final climax then amounted to “pulling out all the stops,” demonstrating that the bold power of the full ensemble could be just as effective as the subtlety of the sonorities in the preceding movements.
The second half of the program consisted entirely of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 73 symphony in D major (the second). While there is less instrumental diversity in Brahms’ scoring, the work still benefits from a keen sense of how the colorations of sonority lead the attentive listener through the introduction and development of thematic material. Pacing is critical to the unfolding of that development, and Sandmeier had an acute sense of both overall tempo and the subtle variations in pulse through which the full expressiveness of Brahms’ rhetoric is revealed. His overall approach was energetic and enthusiastic enough that the observer could easily detect the occasional smile among the performers. Here, again, there was a need for a conclusion grounded in a “grand sound;” and Sandmeier’s balancing of the full ensemble charging through the coda of the final movement at full tilt did not disappoint.
Between these two traditional works, Sandmeier programmed the world premiere of “Tree Ride” by Justin Ralls. This was the student orchestral composition that received this year’s Highsmith Award. In his notes for the program book, the composer observed that the piece was inspired by John Muir’s essay “Wind-storm in the Forests of the Yuba.”
The music itself is certainly a whirlwind of thick orchestral textures. Sandmeier’s account definitely focused on the overall sonorities of those textures and their transition through a series of “sonorous regions;” but his attention to detail was such that one could appreciate the instrumental threads while also considering the textures as a whole. The rhetorical exhilaration would occasionally bring to mind some of the instrumental enthusiasm of Ottorino Respighi’s “Roman illustration” compositions. (In the context of California forests, Respighi’s approach to Roman pines would be a good fit.) However, Ralls definitely established his own voice with this composition, and his preference for textural transition over thematic development was given an effectively powerful account in last night’s performance, setting high expectations for the remainder of the Conservatory Orchestra season.