Symphony pays a fine tribute to Vienna and Valentine’s Day

Saturday night at the Cohan Center, Maestro Michael Nowak led the San Luis Symphony through its strongest and most thrilling concert so far this season.

Clarinet soloist David Singer amazed the audience with his liquid tone, and the orchestra seemed to play with unusual clarity and momentum.

The evening was subtitled “From Vienna With Love” in reference to both Valentine’s Day and to the Viennese tradition behind the evening’s program — a short Haydn overture, Mozart’s great clarinet concerto K. 622 and Beethoven’s propulsive Seventh Symphony.

Did I hear someone say “old warhorses”? Not so fast! These pieces are certainly well known, but that’s because people love them. Both the concerto and the symphony offer listeners a wide emotional range, from the poignant to the hectic, and they challenge players to balance subtlety with momentum.

The symphony’s strings met the challenge handsomely. The Haydn overture may have functioned as a warm-up, but tempo was brisk, lines were clear, and the spirit of 18th-century confidence gleamed.

Clarinet virtuoso David Singer, on loan from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, came with an extra dose of confidence. Tall and heavy-set, Singer wore a bow-tie-and-vest combo that suggested a blackjack dealer in some dream casino.

His musicianship made sure that everybody won. I could hear the wood in his lovely clarinet tone, and he danced a little while playing, as though he were beckoning the music to rise up from the earth through his body. Mozart’s slow movement was one high point of Saturday’s concert. Sounding like, as one audience member mentioned, the first sunny day after a spate of rain, the adagio made perfect sense as human drama, celebrating the joy and melancholy of existence in time.

Singer deserves extra points for professionalism. Just before show time, as one of my spies in the orchestra informed me, he noticed a hairline crack in his clarinet! It was too late to fix it or borrow another, but Singer soldiered on and sounded simply beautiful. His performance caused so much enthusiasm among novice concert-goers that the concerto was twice interrupted by applause — more gratifying for the performers than a room full of cell phones going off at once, perhaps, but really no less inappropriate.

A personal confession: the Seventh is my favorite Beethoven symphony. I know the Ninth is greater as a composition and the Third is more important in music history. Still, this symphony’s blend of structural complexity with forward thrust, especially in the second half, gives me both the thoughtfulness I need now as an adult listener and all the excitement I felt rocking out to The Who as a teenager.

Nowak had a clear conception of the symphony’s drama and kept things moving smartly without sacrificing transparency. Tempi were flexible, the slow movement unfolded as naturally as chamber music, and the finale rocked. The concert was sponsored by the Blakeslee Family Foundation and by Silas and Jimmie Brewer.