This week, Bay Area audiences have the opportunity to hear two of 19th-century Germany's greatest works for the stage. Even as the San Francisco Opera launched its new production of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" at the Opera House, Michael Tilson Thomas was leading the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in Brahms' German Requiem at Davies Symphony Hall.
The two works have more in common than meets the eye. Both were premiered in 1868, although the composers labored under earlier versions for years prior to their first performances. Both have been absent from the organizations presenting them this week since 1993. And both employ stirring, extended passages of orchestration, as well as beautifully lyrical writing for chorus and vocal soloists.
One is a comic opera, of course, while the other is an unusual setting of sacred texts. Yet at least in the case of Thursday afternoon's performance of the Requiem, it seemed that Tilson Thomas was leading the listener on a journey back to the golden age of German Romanticism.
Did recent events help lend weight to the symphony's program (which will have its final performance tonight)? Perhaps. Any musical work that incorporates texts such as the Song of Solomon ("The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God") or John 16:22 ("Ye now have sorrow") would seem especially poignant now.
But Tilson Thomas began preparing this performance long before the events of Sept. 11, and one cannot underestimate the ways in which this conductor has shaped the orchestra into the supremely responsive, breathing entity it is today.
Thursday's concert, which also included Ernst Krenek's "Die Nachtigall," Op. 68a, and Arnold Schoenberg's Theme and Variations, Op. 43b, offered luminous evidence of the orchestra's unity and combined strengths. And in the case of the German Requiem, it seemed possible that Brahms' music has never sounded so alive, so terrifying or so radiant.
The conductor savored every contrast in the Requiem's seven movements, which traverse musical terrain from joyous hymns to thunder-and-brimstone numbers. The orchestra seemed an extension of his will, playing with thrilling dynamism throughout.
Vance George's Symphony Chorus sang with awesome power, producing delicate, ethereal harmonies in the opening "Selig sind, die da Leid tragen" (Blessed are they that mourn), and fearsome power in the third movement "Herr, lehre doch mich" (Lord, make me know). This movement, which concludes with the text from Song of Solomon, was made even more affecting when Tilson Thomas paused at the end for a moment of silence before proceeding with the fourth.
The soloists were first-rate. Peter Mattei's rich, warm baritone was a definite asset. Soprano Elizabeth Futral sang with beautifully floated tone in the fifth movement "Ye now have sorrow."
Futral also gave a penetrating performance in Krenek's "Die Nachtigall" (The Nightingale). The 1931 work, which receives its first S.F. Symphony performance in this program, is a shimmering setting of a poem by Karl Kraus, and Futral's brilliant vocalism married music and text in memorable style.
The program opened with Schoenberg's brief yet potent Theme and Variations. The performance represents a kind of jumping-off place for the Symphony's season-long exploration of Schoenberg's music (next month, the orchestra will perform the composer's "Pelleas und Melisande" and "Transfigured Night," and it made a tantalizing preview of things to come.
Georgia Rowe covers classical music for the Times. Reach her at email@example.com.