By Georgia Rowe
Contra Costa Times
Published: Friday, June 8, 2001
"Imagine the universe beginning to sing and resound,"
Gustav Mahler wrote of his Symphony No. 8. "It is no longer
human voices; it is planets and suns revolving."
Music lovers got a chance to experience Mahler's vision first-hand
in a concert Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall, as Michael Tilson
Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in a scintillating
performance of the work also known as the "Symphony of a
Thousand." The program, which concludes the orchestra's 2000-'01
subscription season, repeats Saturday and Sunday.
If Tilson Thomas wanted to close the season with a big bang, he
couldn't have made a better choice. Mahler's massive 90-minute
score represents the composer at his most operatic. It requires
enormous resources, and, in the right hands, produces equally
great rewards. Presiding over the orchestra, mixed chorus, boys'
and girls' choruses and eight vocal soloists, the conductor shaped
the 90-minute work performed without intermission into a cohesive musical drama of epic proportions.
Composed in two parts, the Symphony No. 8 is a striking combination
of sacred and secular texts. It begins with the medieval Christian
hymn "Veni, creator spiritus" (Come, creator spirit);
the second half is a setting of the finale movement from Goethe's
"Faust." Taken together, the two sections create an
encompassing spiritual world, with the former's promise of grace
and redemption wed with astonishing elegance to the latter's mystical
glimpse of a perfect heaven.
Tilson Thomas conducted with palpable urgency, and the orchestra
responded with some of its most unified playing of the season.
"Veni, creator spiritus" came across with fierce impact,
and in the prelude to Part II, there was remarkable clarity of
detail forthcoming in every section.
Vance George's Symphony Chorus was simply awe-inspiring; producing
weighty, opulent sound throughout, this ensemble continues to
be a model for vocal ensembles everywhere. The San Francisco Girls
Chorus (directed by Magen Solomon) and the S.F. Boys Chorus (led
by Ian Robertson) made gorgeously ethereal contributions as various
The soloists were strongest among the high voices, with soprano
Christine Brewer singing with lustrous tone in the Una Poenitentium's
prayer to the Virgin. Soprano Lauren Flanigan (Magna Peccatrix)
also produced pure, radiant sound. Singing from an upstairs terrace,
Dominique Labelle made the most of her brief role as the Mater
Gloriosa. Mezzo soprano Michelle de Young lent her customary focus
and power to the role of Mulier Samaritana. Mezzo Jill Grove (Maria
Aegyptiaca), however, often seemed to be struggling for audibility.
Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey has impressed in previous appearances
with the Symphony and S.F. Opera, and his suave performance Wednesday
as Doctor Marianus confirmed his vocal gifts once again. The pleas
of the two patres were eloquently presented by baritone Stephen
Powell and bass Franz Hawlata.