Deborah Voigt in Concert with the San Francisco Symphony

We are perhaps familiar with a more usual ìLiederabendî approach as
furthered by other celebrated sopranos — you know, the often mewing, cooing,
hushed treatment of every fragile syllable
as-if-they-might-break-if-sung-too-operatically? Such studied wispiness was
little in evidence in Ms. Voigtís renditions on January 10th. No wilting
violet she, Diva Debbie just flat out really sang ëem all instead
of over-ìinterpretingî them. And oh, how she sang! With steady tone of
great presence in all registers and at all gradations of volume; with
generous, soaring, high-flying phrases; with delicate nuance and telling
detail; all of which was characterized by excellent diction and complete
stylistic understanding.

Up against her seasoned Straussian standard then, the SFO was highly
competent if not quite equally successful in essaying this richly detailed
score. Oft times on past occasions I have wished this fine group of musicians
would coalesce into a single-minded band of thrilling music-makers, and often
as not I have found them a bit wanting in artistic vision and ensemble, no
more so than now as they confronted these lush, complex orchestral songs. If
history is a teacher, my past SFO experiences had perhaps taught me that
Maestro Thomas (or ìMTTî as he is marketed locally) seems to draw
inspiration from superb soloists more than he appears to impart it routinely
to his players. That was certainly true of such past luminaries as Lang Lang
and Helene Grimaud, with whom he became a true collaborator, and with whom
the orchestra excelled. Here, MTT inexplicably seemed content to allow the
orchestra to be a somewhat aloof accompanist.

That said, there were some very fine orchestral moments to be sure, not
least of which was a peerless violin solo in ìBeim Schlafengehen,î
matched by an equally superb horn solo in ìIm Abendrot.î (Indeed, the
horns were remarkably wonderful throughout the evening.) Having heard the
Vienna Philharmonic take on this score, the bar was set very high for me,
since those guys absolutely inhabit this music as a seamless ensemble. That
SFO would not be so seamlessly involved was foretold by the concert opener,
Knussenís Third Symphony. It was dispatched with cool skill, but little
overt joy or passion, the very talented individual musicians shining if
somewhat independent. The Strauss merely continued that semi-detached,
sit-back-and-play-the-notes pattern.

And then something happened. Barberís seldom heard ìAndromacheís
Farewellî knocked us right between the eyes with a well-judged and
committed dramatic reading from our soprano, matched thrill for thrill by
expansive, virtuosic orchestral playing elicited by MTTís fiery conducting.
(What, did this guy knock back a couple of Red Bullís at intermission?)

The wonderful, under-valued soprano Martina Arroyo premiered the piece in
1963 to open the new Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. How enjoyable to
already encounter the vibrant palette of orchestral sounds and effects
(especially the exciting brass fanfares) that the composer would further
refine and put to good use a bit later in his ìAntony and Cleopatraî
which opened the new Metropolitan Opera House.

ìAndromacheísî dynamic score certainly deserves to be heard more
often. That is, if a dramatic soprano of Ms. Voigtís bountiful gifts can be
found. It is an interesting and varied scena with well-calculated dramatic
tension; featuring a pleasing balance of signature Barber melodiousness and
parlando passages; and with some sure-fire, slam-bang, full-Geschrei money
notes that stir the soul and tickle the eardrums. And man, does our Diva ever
have those money notes! Million Dollar Baby, baby! It was a singular treat to
hear such a wholly realized, successful undertaking of this rarity.

After the prolonged ovation died down for the Barber, MTT then jumped
right into a Puckish reading of Beethovenís Fourth with equally pleasing
results. Though it may not have the grandeur or gravitas of the ìbookendî
Third and Fifth Symphonies, it was delightful nonetheless, especially in this
playful, inspired interpretation. My persistence in returning to Davies Hall
for yet another concert after those several disappointing near-misses was
amply rewarded this night, for now SFO was indeed not just ìplayingî but
truly ìinhabitingî the music with abandon.

MTT was in his element, inspiring and charismatic, enjoying himself (and
Beethoven) so much that at a couple of points I was thinking he may just
break into some spontaneous Schuhplatten. The orchestra responded in kind
with flawless ensemble playing and sparkling, intricate solo work. (As Ed
Sullivan might say: ìHow about a hand for that bassoon player? Címon!î)
The last stinging chord brought a rain of rousing cheers down on the
assemblage, probably not a usual response for the Fourth, which says a lot
for the dazzling magic that MTT and the SFO imbued on a piece of such gentler

After this exciting second half, representing the very best I have ever
heard from this bunch and rivaling any other orchestra in the world, I wanted
to shout ìDude, drink the Red Bull before Act One next time!î And for all
I know, MTT did. . .

James Sohre

image_description=Deborah Voigt
product_title=Above: Deborah Voigt (Columbia Artists Management | 21C Media Group)