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Tour de Force
Symphony Chorus hits the road not taken with two dates at Carnegie Hall
John McMurtrie, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
It may be 29 years old, but the San Francisco Symphony Chorus has yet to leave home. Then again, a road trip for 145 people isn't a cheap, last-minute affair. Tomorrow and Thursday, however, the chorus will make up for any missed on-the-road adventures, performing two concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York.
"You could say we are seriously aflutter," says soprano Diana Landau, one of the 115 volunteer members of the chorus who will be joining the 30 paid singers at one of music's most hallowed halls. "It's certainly something chorus members have been hoping for for many years, and we're thrilled that it's happening."
For its inaugural tour with the San Francisco Symphony, the chorus will perform challenging works by Stravinsky and Mahler, a repertoire that covers a range of styles and is sung in French, Russian, Latin and German.
"In a way, that makes it a lot of fun," says bass Noam Cook, a volunteer member of the chorus who is a philosophy professor at San Jose State University. "It's a great way to show off what we can do."
The Symphony's 2001 national tour, supported by Charles Schwab, also includes dates at the Tilles Center in Greenvale, Long Island, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. But those dates will feature the orchestra alone, performing work by Seeger, Copland and Rachmaninoff.
The orchestra and chorus previewed the Stravinsky and Mahler programs over the past two weeks at Davies Symphony Hall. Rehearsals for the chorus began in August, "which is really unprecedented," says Landau. Rehearsals for February concerts usually would begin in November. "That gives you an idea of just how seriously he wants us to give a good impression," Landau says of chorus director Vance George.
Stravinsky and Mahler have long been Symphony favorites, especially under Michael Tilson Thomas. But the orchestra's relationship to Stravinsky goes back to former music director Pierre Monteux, who earlier had led the famous riot-provoking performance of "The Rite of Spring" in Paris in 1913. Stravinsky conducted the Symphony in his own right for eight performances. Thomas worked with Stravinsky as a teenager in Los Angeles; the conductor has recorded many of the composer's pieces.
As for Mahler, almost all of the Austrian composer's works have been performed by the Symphony since Thomas made his San Francisco debut in 1974 with Symphony No. 9.
Though the orchestra and chorus have performed the pieces they're touring with numerous times -- recording two of them, Stravinsky's "Persephone" and Mahler's "Das klagende Lied" -- George says the chorus had to start from scratch in rehearsals. "We always have new personnel, and music must, of course, be rediscovered," he says. "Having done it before gives you a kind of familiarity, yes, but it still is a matter of then digging deeper and finding even more qualities to work on."
One of the big unknowns is how the chorus, which has won three Grammy awards, will sound at Carnegie. The hall, smaller than Davies, can accommodate roughly 150 singers, George says. By contrast, when the chorus performs Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in June at Davies, twice that number will be on stage.
Abigail Farrell, who sings soprano with the chorus, says Carnegie's size means that the audience will be able to hear the chorus' pronunciation better than at Davies, where the sound is a little muddier.
Since some at Carnegie will be able to understand Russian, Farrell says, the chorus has worked especially hard on the second of the three Stravinsky com-
positions in tomorrow's program. "Les Noces," also known as "Svadebka" or "The Wedding," is a fast-tempo work that re-creates a wild village wedding, with Russian sung at breakneck speed.
"It's rhythmically just a hoot," says Farrell. "It just bounces all over the place, and it has more text than any other choral work I can recall. I always need a little tongue transplant at the end of the evening. It's very, very difficult."
A random line from the work gives one a sense of its complexity. Translated:
"Love her and shake her like a pear tree and love her." As it is sung: "Lyubi kak dushu, tryasi kak grushu!"
To help singers master the foreign text, George set up special diction classes. Singers also are given the chance to learn from language tapes. Landau says she and other chorus members find themselves singing bits of the works in the supermarket and on Muni. "Generally, people look at us oddly," says Landau, whose day job is in communications. "The tunes just kind of get stuck in your head."
While "Les Noces" is frenzied and joyous, "Persephone," which opens the concert, is an overlooked gem of lyrical beauty. Sung and narrated in French (its text was written by French author Andre Gide), "Persephone" relates the Greek myth of its title character, who divides her time between Earth and the underworld. "There's so much charm and beauty in it," George says. "You cannot push that kind of expression. It has a particular kind of calmness about it that you really have to be aware of and comfortable with."
The final Stravinsky work in the program is "Symphony of Psalms," considered by many to be the greatest choral orchestral work of the 20th century. Sung in Latin, this glorious masterpiece was composed in 1930, after Stravinsky converted to Christianity. Achieving its hushed tones is very strenuous for singers, George says. "It requires a lot of soft singing, and soft singing is difficult."
The linguistic and stylistic challenges continue Thursday when the chorus takes up Mahler's "Das klagende Lied" (loosely translated as "Song of Lament").
Written when Mahler was only 20 years old, the cantata tells a tale of fratricide and a misanthropic queen. (Sigmund Freud, who counseled Mahler, may have had something to say on the matter.)
A romantic, operatic work, it takes singers from great highs to great lows. As a study in contrasts, the Symphony is performing it along with the Adagio from Mahler's final, unfinished Symphony No. 10.
"He's absolutely complete in his musical language already in 'Das klagende Lied,' " says George. "The amazing thing for us is to realize what maturity and what mastery there was early on."
E-mail John McMurtrie at email@example.com
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page B1