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Glorious chorus
'German Requiem' with awesome depth
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, October 12, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Once or twice every season it becomes necessary simply to sit and marvel, in awe and gratitude, at the greatness of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Wednesday night's magnificent rendition of the Brahms "German Requiem" conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas was such an occasion.

The "German Requiem" includes assignments for soprano and bass-baritone soloists, but at its heart it is an expression of communal grief and communal solace, and the chorus is the pre-eminent vehicle for those emotions. In Davies Symphony Hall, Vance George's chorus rose to the challenge with a resourcefulness and communicative depth that were astonishing to witness.

Under Thomas' cogent leadership, the performance emerged through a wealth of tonal color and dynamic shadings that brought the music's expressive fluidity to the fore.

In addition to the darkly autumnal opening movement (an effect underlined by silencing the violins) and the grandeur of the Handelian "Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt," the score boasts tremendously lithe and graceful passages in which a listener can detect utterances of the most direct and personal sort.

Both ends of the spectrum -- as well as just about everything in between -- were superbly addressed by the chorus, in singing marked by cohesion, flexibility and tonal control as well as the pinpoint diction that allowed Brahms' carefully selected biblical texts to have their full impact.

That opening movement, for one ("Selig sind, die da Leid tragen"), was rendered in all its mournful splendor, and Thomas' careful pacing caught perfectly the movement's shifts in tone and direction.

The deliberate tread of "Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras" underlined the music's import in the most haunting fashion, answered two movements later by the light, airy phrases of "Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen." And throughout the performance, perfectly judged dynamic effects -- from the most shimmery pianissimo to thundering fortissimo -- brought the score vividly to life.

Swedish bass-baritone Peter Mattei brought his extraordinarily commanding tone and interpretive clarity to "Herr, lehre doch mich." But soprano Elizabeth Futral, usually a radiant and dynamic performer, sounded ill at ease in her assignment, struggling for the high notes and producing a thin warble.

She fared a little better during the first half, in the first Symphony performance of Ernst Krenek's 1931 song "The Nightingale." This seven-minute opus, accompanied by strings and two flutes, oscillates between lush late- Romantic harmonies and swatches of more astringent modernism; it sounds like something Strauss might have written had he assimilated Schoenberg's atonal style.

Schoenberg himself started out the evening, though not in his atonal vein. Instead, Thomas led a forceful and shapely performance of the composer's accessible Theme and Variations, Op. 43b.



The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow night in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $34-$88. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.

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