It should come as no surprise to anyone that conductor Bruno Weil, who made his long-overdue debut with the San Francisco Symphony this week, achieved thrilling results with the all-Bach first half of Thursday evening's concert at Davies Symphony Hall.
Weil, who is music director of the Carmel Bach Festival, is widely acclaimed as one of the world's great interpreters of Bach's music, and the two cantatas that opened the program -- "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen," BWV 12, and "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen," BWV 51 -- seemed tailor-made for his skills.
Even more impressive, though, was the conductor's leadership in Schubert's Mass No. 5 in A-flat major, D. 678, which comprised the evening's second half. Presiding over the always-responsive San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Vance George's Symphony Chorus, and a fine quartet of vocal soloists, Weil shaped this infrequently played work -- which receives its first S.F. Symphony performances on this program -- into a first-rate dramatic offering.
Audiences can hear the remaining performances at 8 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Schubert, who was by all accounts able to produce some of his brilliant art songs in a matter of hours, took five years to complete the Mass in A-flat major -- seven years, if you count the revision he undertook a few years after its first draft.
The score follows the familiar liturgical mass form used by many other composers before and after. But Schubert's unique stamp is all over the 40-minute work, which unfolded in Thursday's performance with the richness and complexity of a large-scale symphonic masterpiece.
Weil conducted with consistent drive and assurance, eliciting a wealth of detail while remaining mindful of the work's overall architecture. The opening Kyrie sounded radiant, with the voices of the vocal soloists emerging in clear relief from the massed sonorities of the chorus. The Gloria, with its bold choral outbursts, was positively hair-raising. The orchestra and chorus were wonderfully unified in the central Credo.
Best of all was the glowing Sanctus. Weil seemed to savor each note of Schubert's harmonic and textural palette, and the response from orchestra and chorus was transcendent. The Agnus Dei, which features a reflective "Dona nobis pacem" ("Give us peace"), brought the performance to a tender, eloquent conclusion.
The vocal soloists were well-chosen. Heidi Grant Murphy's bright, focused soprano, and Monica Groop's large, richly colored mezzo-soprano were assets throughout. Tenor John Tessier made attractive contributions, and bass Christopheren Nomura sang with rounded, resonant tone.
In the first half, the Bach cantatas also benefited from the soloists' work. "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" ("Weeping, wailing, grieving, fearing") featured Groop, Tessier and Nomura, as well as a beautifully measured solo by principal oboist William Bennett. In "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" ("Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands"), Murphy's voice blended handsomely with the playing of principal trumpeter Glenn Fischthal.
The concert is an excellent showcase for the S.F. Symphony Chorus, which celebrates its 30th anniversary season this year. Under George's direction, the ensemble has never sounded better.