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Symphony struggles with Mahler
Choral singing, vocalists superb
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, June 8, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
The vocal soloists were superb, the choral singing ravishing, the San Francisco Symphony fearless and forthright. And still, Wednesday night's season-ending performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony under music director Michael Tilson Thomas flickered in and out of focus all evening in Davies Symphony Hall.
In theory at least, there was every reason to expect a brilliant finish to Thomas' sixth season with the orchestra. The Mahler performances that Davies has witnessed in recent seasons have grown progressively deeper and more probing, and listeners had only to think back to the explosive rendition of the Eighth that crowned the 1998 Mahler Festival to envision what might be in store.
The reality turned out otherwise. For all the individual moments of splendor on display during Wednesday's 80-minute performance, the dominant impression was of Thomas struggling to keep control of a huge, unwieldy behemoth -- a beast he has tamed with seeming effortlessness on other occasions.
And the Eighth Symphony, popularly known as the "Symphony of a Thousand" in hyperbolic reference to its performing forces, is a recalcitrant creature under the best of circumstances.
In this massive diptych, Mahler fused the sacred and secular strains of his thinking by pairing a setting of the eighth century Latin hymn "Veni, creator spiritus" with a treatment of the final scene from Goethe's "Faust." In addition to a large orchestra, he also called for several choruses and an octet of vocal soloists, each of them given a demanding assignment.
Thus Christian fervor rubs elbows with Goethe's Enlightenment brand of paganist spirituality, just as Mahler's own artistic omnivorousness lays claim to symphonic, operatic and choral traditions and compels them to fight it out on rugged terrain. It's the kind of overheated stew that either makes sublime sense through its sheer passionate overreaching, or else no sense at all.
Wednesday's performance stumbled right out of the gate -- the thunderous opening measures sounded at once overbearing and uncertain -- and never fully recovered its sense of balance. For every moment of concerted power and clarity, there was another weakened by irresolution or lax ensemble playing.
The symphony's shorter, denser first half fared better, as Thomas managed to corral Mahler's contrapuntal complexities into streamlined form. The orchestra and chorus laid into the more extroverted passages, and the climactic return of the opening phrase now packed a real punch.
But the Goethe sequence seemed meandering and diffuse, a series of individually arresting episodes that Thomas couldn't make cohere. In the orchestral opening, meant to set the scene dramatically, coordination was sorely lacking.
The stars of the evening, by any reckoning, were the members of Vance George's Symphony Chorus, who turned in a performance of magnificent cogency and precision. From the still-voiced, exquisitely turned chords that frame the Goethe setting to the unbridled outbursts that well up through the first section, the chorus' dynamic command was astonishing.
Just as remarkable was the clarity with which the singers rendered both the Latin and German texts, and the expressive force they brought to the entire work. The San Francisco Girls Chorus, led by Magen Solomon, and the San Francisco Boys Chorus, led by Ian Robertson, filled their parts with angelic purity.
The vocal soloists, too, were excellent, with soprano Lauren Flanigan (Magna Peccatrix) leading the way in tones of unearthly brightness. Together with mezzo-sopranos Michelle DeYoung (Mulier Samaritana) and Jill Grove (Maria Aegyptiaca), she helped make the trio "Die du grossen Sunderinnen" one of the evening's dramatic highlights.
But there were stellar contributions, too, from soprano Christine Brewer (the Penitent), tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (lyrical and strong as Doctor Marianus), baritone Stephen Powell (Pater Ecstaticus) and bass Franz Hawlata (Pater Profundus). As Mater Gloriosa, soprano Dominique Labelle strained to be heard from the rear terrace.
This week's concerts mark the end of two distinguished Symphony careers, those of percussionist Anthony J. Cirone and violinist Bruce Freifeld, retiring after 36 and 31 years, respectively, with the orchestra.
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY: The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. tomorrow and at 7 p.m. Sunday in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $33-$85. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.
E-mail Joshua Kosman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page C - 1