By Ted AYALA
It was fitting that the Santa Cecilia Orchestra chose to crown its 20th anniversary concert with a symphony that cost its composer some 20 years to compose. Johannes Brahms’ gruff Symphony No. 1 capped a program which intended to depict triumph. Not just for their respective composers, but for the orchestra, which continues to thrive even in these precarious economic times.
Modern day accounts of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 tend to veer towards edgeless stodginess or to period-instrument type lightness bordering on flippancy. Sonia Marie de Leon de Vega, the Santa Cecilia’s music director, carved an interpretation closer to the rougher, more muscular renderings of conductors steeped in the traditions of the late 19th century.
To be sure, neither did she veer to unrestrained rubati and agogic accents like the old school maestros would indulge in. It was a lucid, middle-of-the-road account that pointed back to the fresh-faced youthful Brahms, rather than the aged master whose crystalline eyes peer from behind the thicket of facial hair from many of his late photographs.
Taut and lean, with crisp phrasing, and a keen sense of architectural control, de Leon de Vega steered her audience through a reading that cut much of the fin de siècle fat from the score. In the second movement she loosened her grip enough to allow some melting warmth, with the honeyed tone of concertmaster Yi-Huan Zhao floating sweetly over the sonic tapestry being woven below. Her finale was bracing; even brisk at points, all to the favor of the score. For once the finale had a chiseled sound completely unlike the portentous bluster it can often be made to sound like. The very warm applause that met the orchestra was one that was well deserved.
At the head of the program was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 with Robert Thies as soloist. Beethoven as the composer of musical heroics par excellence was what Thies and the Santa Cecilia treated their listeners to. Brawny, bold gestures marked the outer movements, with Thies conjuring up waves of color and power from his keyboard. He turned that palette to expressions more subtle in the middle movement. Thies remained clear-eyed throughout, never wringing expression from the music score, instead trusting the score to convey the music’s warmth.
“Beautiful my music should be,” once mused Brahms, “but perfect it must be, always.” The Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Robert Thies was certainly lovely. Perfect? Nothing in this world is. “Perfection is bereft of character,” opined Sir Peter Ustinov on the work of pianist Martha Argerich, suggesting that it was the very human qualities of her artistry that made her so captivating. Much the same could be said of Thies and the Santa Cecilia—and they managed to give Brahms’ perfection ample amounts of beauty to boot.