On Dec. 1, the San Francisco Symphony played the symphony to end all symphonies: Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9.” The German composer’s widely-regarded masterpiece was preceded by two works new to the SF Symphony: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s one-movement “Ballade,” and Michael Abels’ “Emerge.”
Davies Symphony Hall hummed as the conductor, Xian Zhang, raised an arm to signal the high and heavy strings of “Ballade.”
It was readily apparent why the Black English composer Coleridge was frequently compared to the composer Gustav Mahler: The rhythmically dissonant yet dramatically Romantic themes echoed between the lush string vibrato and the pulsing undertow of brass and bass.
Zhang conducted with her whole body — rarely abrupt, always flowing and driving tone, volume and time. At some moments, she was as rigidly upright as a soldier. At other moments, she was as languidly frantic as Mick Jagger. By the end of the piece, she was practically dancing.
Abels — more familiar to many as the composer of Jordan Peele’s films, “Get Out,” “Us” and “Nope” — then emerged to introduce his 2021 composition, “Emerge.” He described the nine-minute orchestral piece as a “sonic sunrise” reflective of its time: “emergence from the pandemic, the struggle for many different voices to cohere.”
Accordingly, the musicians began the piece as though they were tuning up. A hesitantly pulled sustain from the first violin. Then, a percussive chime here, a high-strung cello pluck there and soon all was rhythmic disorder, a struggle of all to sound as one.
It’s a testament to Abels’ brilliance that, when the orchestra did find a single voice above the confused clamor, it was downright ominous. The drums surged, the strings screeched — happy, horrified and much in keeping with the state of those who emerged from the global pandemic.
The balcony above the stage then filled with the SF Symphony Chorus, a stately-moving mass of men and women clad in long black gowns. They took their seats and held their leather choir books as the vocal soloists took center stage: soprano Gabriella Reyes, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Issachah Savage and bass Reginald Smith, Jr.
The conductor bent her arms, neck, wrists and knees before signaling the start of the First Movement. As she released, shooting herself upward, the strings lilted and thrummed like a dreamer on the unending, ungiving edge of waking. The drums and brass brought Beethoven’s symphony to a booming flow only relieved by half-beats of silence.
Zhang gestured to the far peripheries of the stage, bringing the trombones and timpanis to a fever pitch. The bows, too, all rose in one pulse. When she wanted a more tremulous tempo, her baton had only to shake by her ear and the bass would quake.
The bass, which punched resolutely under the first three movements, dominated the tempo and tone of the fourth. It was remarkable that, through this, all of the strings were as discrete as they were cohesive. Each was of the whole, and each — violin, viola, cello and bass — could be distinguished from it.
As the violins took over, reiterating the Ode to Joy theme, the bass re-emerged through the strains of vocalist Smith Jr., who sung the first line of Beethoven’s adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s original “Ode to Joy” poem: “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!’ Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen, und freudenvollere!” (“Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones!”)
Reyes’ soprano then swelled and melted into the cello-led strings as the Chorus commanded the room. As they ended the movement with the climax — “Über Sternen muß er wohnen” (“He must dwell beyond the stars”) — the crowd was brought to two standing ovations. With them, the performers were brought to their feet and the chorus bowed in a proud, grand wave. It was a sublime performance.