San Francisco Symphony funnily flirts with Mozart, Haydn

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San Francisco Symphony/Courtesy

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The Davies Symphony Hall has never been funnier. May 20 witnessed audience chuckles bouncing off of the hall’s suspended plastic reflectors, the laughter cascading into the ceiling coffers with gleeful abandon. From the outset, the evening’s pairings of two Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart pieces with a famed Joseph Haydn symphony seemed awfully formal, but the San Francisco Symphony kept humor in its arsenal — revealing plenty of secrets from up its starched sleeves.

Guest conductor Bernard Labadie guided the symphony through the opening night of the Mozart and Haydn program with approachable levity. From the outset, his attitude gave the appearance of professionalism and familiarity — the air of one so comfortable with the material he could conduct the repertoire backwards and in his sleep. Labadie’s endearing nonchalance seemed to resonate with members of the orchestra as they tuned with sly, shared smiles and eyebrow raises. The shared secret that spread among the symphony players would soon be shared with their keenly curious audience. 

Labadie took to the conductor’s music stand in an alternative stance, with a piano stool perched on a series of stacked risers. He sat with coattails flicked over the edge, shoulders tickling ears as his elbows drew upwards to prepare for each animated downstroke. Labadie mimicked the beloved character of Mr. Toad as he revved his engine up for a wild, rhythmic ride. 

The first piece, Mozart’s “Serenade No. 6, Serenata notturna,” created a lively, Jane Austen-esque jaunt that mirrored a village dance in a bustling hall. A traditional “Salzburg quartet” of two violins, one viola and a double bass framed Labadie’s tiered podium, all standing tall in fastidious attention. The group looked immaculate, but the members’ prim and proper posture gave way to inklings of animation: a nod of the head here, a toe raised there. As for second violinist Dan Carlson, he raised high on his heels and lowered himself in jovial jest to match his notes. The motley crew of strings creatively lured out light chuckles from the audience, and their personalities shined through the performance. 

While “Serenade No. 6” issued in comedic frivolity and flirtation, its successor, “Symphony No. 36, Linz,” offered no such personality. At times, the orchestra was dragged down by prolonged passages and traditional melodic melancholia that ebbed and flowed expectedly between piano and forte with no surprises. While in a different program this piece might have been better received, its position sandwiched between the serenade and Haydn symphony forced it into the back of audience members’ minds as the intermission drew nearer. 

The saving grace of the second symphony manifested itself in Stephen Paulson’s bassoon, as the velvet velour strongly emerged amid the singing strings. Labadie whipped the group into a whirling fervor of quick, cascading scales, but Paulson remained steady in his tone and romantic dialogue with other sections of the orchestra. 

To mimic the original crowd reception of Haydn’s “Symphony No. 103,” Labadie encouraged audience members to break usual formality by clapping between movements and gleefully whooping and hollering to their content. Amid his narrative, however, timpani player Bryce Leafman interrupted with bombastic banging — lending the piece its namesake of “Drumroll.” Leafman did not let any audience member take reprieve in his initiated solo, maximizing the few bars Haydn wrote for his interpretation. The symphony followed suit, attempting to match the high energy of Leafman’s improvisation.

The Haydn sequences almost lived up to the booming notes from Leafman’s mallets, but his second improvised solo at the end of the first movement regained the audience’s adoration of his limited notes and endless rhythmic possibilities. Labadie had no choice but to sit back in a similar trance; as all other instruments fell into a hushed lull, Leafman pounded out prowess at every bar’s turn. 

Collectively, the comedic elements of the San Francisco Symphony’s rendition of Mozart and Haydn breathed fresh air into the orchestra. Labadie’s personable conducting gave way to a striking evening that reminded audience members to not curtail their propensity for laughter, even as they sat in a symphony hall.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.