Richard Wagner famously remarked of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7” that the piece represented to him the “apotheosis of the dance.” The Santa Cecilia Orchestra’s closing concert of its 20th season on Sunday conveyed an impression of that remark.
Something of Wagner’s Venusburg bacchanalia could be sensed in Sonia Marie de León de Vega’s interpretation of the Seventh’s finale: a near palpable sensuality coupled with a tight rhythmic drive. But it wasn’t period practice-informed, “Beethoven-lite” typical of today. This was decidedly old-school Beethoven – slower, muscular and with a strongly delineated bass profile. It was an approach that worked exceptionally well in the first movement, its massive opening tutti firmly laying out the music’s later wild harmonic modulations. The famous second movement “Allegretto” had an appropriate sense of dignified pomp.
Her interpretation was also aided by her judicious disregard of the music’s repeats. Observing repeats is de rigeur these days, though they can at times saddle the music with an unwelcome portentousness. In a few Beethoven symphonies, observing the first movement exposition repeat is crucial given the pithiness of the thematic material. In the Seventh, however, with its sprawling opening, the repeat can take the momentum out of the first movement. In the end, it’s a matter of personal opinion.
Dance was explicitly recalled in Alan Hovhaness’ “Tzaikerk,” which is fragrant with the sounds of the Armenian folk music that the composer – himself an Armenian-American – was rediscovering during the 1940s.
Salpy Kerkonian and Yi-Huan Zhao, the soloists and the orchestra’s principal flutist and associate concertmaster respectively, gilded the music’s gentle evocations of Armenian music with their sense of subtle color. Kerkonian displayed an earthy flair that contrasted with Zhao’s cool and honeyed sound. But each augmented the artistry of the other, blending together into an attractive whole.
Mendelssohn’s misty “The Hebrides Overture,” though having nothing to do with dance, was animated by the conductor with a springy rhythmic step that gave additional urgency to the score. The overture was a late replacement on the program for Michael Torke’s “Ash” from his Color Music, which had been originally scheduled to open the concert. Though the loss of the Torke piece was disappointing, de León de Vega’s vivid depiction of Mendelssohn’s thrashing waves beating against the craggy, Scottish moors helped take the sting away.
The orchestra, as always, gave entirely of itself. Enthusiastic is, perhaps, the single best word to describe the Santa Cecilia Orchestra’s playing. There never is the sense of the musicians merely cranking out yet another performance. If anything, their playing can often impart a sense of newness to well-worn repertoire. That’s an important quality that is sometimes lacking in first-rank ensembles where jaded sensibilities, however attractive their playing is on the surface, casts a pallor of bemusement, if not outright boredom over some of the music they play.
It’s that sense of shared adventure that continues to distinguish the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, a quality that will ensure that it continues to thrive in the seasons to come.