Posted on Sat, Jun. 11, 2005

Beethoven's 9th a joyous closer


The San Francisco Symphony raised the roof Thursday evening at Davies Symphony Hall, as Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and a first-rate team of vocal soloists in a gloriously outsize performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, "Choral."

As the final subscription program of the season, it was a fitting way to celebrate. Beethoven's Ninth is always a joyous occasion, but it has yielded particularly dynamic results for this conductor and his orchestra, who have returned to it numerous times throughout the years (most recently in 2000). Still, there was something undeniably special about the ensemble's revisiting of it this time around.

Thursday's sold-out concert, which repeats through June 18 at Davies (with a Friday performance at the Flint Center), included another, albeit newer, cause for celebration. With the world premiere of William Kraft's "XIII/The Grand Encounter," Timpani Concerto No. 2, performed by S.F. Symphony principal timpanist David Herbert as soloist, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra introduced a dynamic new work to the repertoire.

As appealing as Kraft's concerto sounded, Beethoven's late-life masterpiece was the evening's main event. Tilson Thomas' approach to the work may not have changed fundamentally since he first conducted it, but his mastery of its emotional weight -- and his relationship with this orchestra -- has only deepened over the years.

The result was a performance of impressive sweep and grandeur, although it took a little time to establish its footing; one noted a few moments of instability in the first movement, with Tilson Thomas struggling for a sense of unanimity among the various sections of the orchestra. Still, there was plenty of opportunity simply to bask in the richness of the sonorities -- the warm, lush sound of the strings, the sweetness of the woodwinds, the soft gleam of the brass.

No problems in the scherzo, which came across with breathtaking force and clarity. The slow movement was marked by the kind of eloquence and beauty that distinguishes the best readings of Beethoven's music.

The finale represented Tilson Thomas' finest moments. The orchestra bore down with fierce energy, and Vance George's Symphony Chorus produced a massively unified sound capable of raising the hair on the back of your neck.

Among the soloists, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey was the standout, singing with admirable vocal heft, honeyed tone and perfectly idiomatic German. Soprano Twyla Robinson brought beautiful, diamond-bright tone to the assignment, and mezzo-soprano Gigi Mitchell-Velasco sang handsomely. Bass Raymond Aceto made sturdy, resonant contributions.

Hard to say whether Kraft's concerto, which gets its first performances on this program, will receive the kind of wide acceptance it deserves. But it certainly made a congenial companion for the Beethoven.

Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, written for Herbert and dedicated to Tilson Thomas, the 22-minute work features no fewer than 15 timpani, some of which are tuned to extend well above the instrument's customary range. As such, they give the composer great potential for melodic invention, and Kraft capitalizes on that potential brilliantly. For his part, Herbert played with tremendous grace and precision; Tilson Thomas and the orchestra gave him excellent support.

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