SF Choral Society tackles Haydn’s “Seasons”

Peasants at play in San Francisco

The San Francisco Choral Society and the SF Chamber Orchestra combined forces for Joseph Haydn’s mighty Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons). Led by Robert Geary in the Fillmore district’s Calvary Presbyterian Church, this two-and-a-half-hour work is seldom performed in its entirety. As tight as the chorus was—and they flexed their muscles in the fugues—and as expressive as the musicians were, three fabulous soloists stole the show from beginning to end.

Robert Geary-photo by Arif HasyimEugene Brancoveanu, long known to our arts readers as a brilliant baritone and a true adventurer of the opera world, opened the two-and-a-half hour oratorio with the first intimations of spring, hard on winter’s heels.

Soprano Marcelle Dronkers came in with a tight vibrato, big top notes, and honeyed endings to phrases introduced by oboe solo and echoed by flute. In later passages, her ornamentations twined brightly with those winds.

And completing their circle, Brian Thorsett produced a tenor that seemed natural and effortless, even in the highest reaches.

Another strength of this production was the genuine use of Haydn’s original German. Brancoveanu was Romanian-born and Austrian-trained, and his diction, vowels and rhythms gave authenticity to every passage.

Marcelle also got her German chops the “easy” way, as she is bilingual in Dutch, but polished that early training with many, many operatic roles.

Marcelle Dronkers-photo by Bob Shomler

Brian Thorsett, on the other hand, is a local lad who gave a gorgeously artistic bent to his German diction: he over-pronounced his consonants to better circumscribe those smooth-as-silk vowels.

The long oratorio, written towards the end of Haydn’s productive life, was based on the progression of the seasons, with parallels to the seasons of life. Throughout it upholds a rosy picture of the “happy peasant,” a myth that was undoubtedly music to the ears of Haydn’s royal patrons.

But politic aside, Haydn worked hard to conjure the elements, with much sturm and word painting, along with an arsenal of witty quotes—snippets of his own melodies along with fragments of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. His stern introduction—painting winter’s reluctant withdrawal—softened into questioning little triplets and coy responses, the freshets and shoots of spring.

Eugene Brancoveanu-photo by Robert BengtsonBrancoveanu embodied a heavy-footed joy as he described the ploughman hastening happily to the fields. Then Thorsett transformed joy into prayer, a farmer’s plea for dew on the fresh-seeded fields, with high notes evanescing almost as if to a higher plane. That was one perfect moment, and then he outdid himself in a mid-summer Cavatina, with a cadenza that softly teased the air.

The chorus, which was a little too large to not be mushy, was game for stern blasts of “Mächtiger Gott!” (Almighty God), and then turned clean and supple for the following fugue of praise.

Other high moments included Brancoveanu’s frolic and greeting to the sun, and his triumphant cadenza on “entgegen hartt.” Dronker’s summer aria, of heat “refreshing to the senses,” was a languid conquest, alternating bright and simmered vowels like the dappling of sunlight on a forest floor, and her phrases played tag with a lovely oboe melody performed by Robin May. And in “In banger Ahnung” (In fearful apprehension life stands still) her soft keening magnificently conveyed the dread of the approaching storm.

The trios were less convincing, with vocal approaches just too disparate, but these three excellent singers adapted to each other in the many duets.

Robert Geary is well known to Piedmont residents as the founder of the East Bay Piedmont Children’s Choir, but he is also the director of SFCS and Volti and has received numerous awards, including recognition for the new works he has championed and premiered. In their last concert they performed David Lang’s battle hymns, collaborating with his Piedmont Choir and the Leah Stein Dance Company.

Brian Thorsett-photo by Claire McAdams

—Adam Broner

Photos of Robert Geary (photo by Arif Hasyim), Marcelle Dronkers (photo by Bob Shomler), Eugene Brancoveanu (photo by Robert Bengtson) and Brian Thorsett (photo by Claire McAdams).