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Symphony weak in 'Requiem'
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, October 26, 2002
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.


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Britten's "War Requiem" remains one of the 20th century's most potent and uncompromising denunciations of war. But you couldn't always tell that from Thursday night's remote and rhythmically flaccid performance by the San Francisco Symphony under guest conductor Kurt Masur.

There were intermittent moments of expressive power during the 90-minute program in Davies Symphony Hall, particularly from Vance George's superb Symphony Chorus. And there were passages in which Britten's genius for declamatory rhetoric and instrumental color simply defied lackluster execution and made its presence felt anyway.

But the overall effect of the performance -- complacent, wan, carelessly argued -- was hardly in keeping with the vigorous complexity of Britten's score.

The greatness of the "War Requiem" lies in its emotional breadth, its fusion of consolation and rage, reconciliation and accusation. Written for the 1962 reconsecration of the bomb-damaged Coventry Cathedral, it combines the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass with Wilfred Owen's pitiless and clear-eyed World War I poetry.

Britten lays out these sources in carefully distinguished strands, entrusting the Latin text to soprano, full orchestra and chorus, and the Owen settings to a more intimate ensemble of a dozen instrumentalists, tenor and baritone. When all these performers join forces in the work's final pages, the result is an overwhelming summation of everything that has come before.

That passage, at least, worked

its expected magic. The singing of the Symphony Chorus, robust and nuanced all evening long, rose to new heights of communal eloquence here, the orchestral playing surged with well-modulated rhythmic momentum, and the contributions of the children's chorus from the rear of the auditorium sounded like an aptly celestial adornment to the musical texture.

.5 There were other movements that enjoyed some degree of expressive vitality. The more extroverted sections of the "Dies Irae" evoked the requisite terror and awe (Britten had Verdi's setting very much on his mind here), and the gentle blandishments of the "Benedictus" came through sweetly.

But much of the performance sounded uninflected, as though Masur were content to let the music's power come through on its own. The opening movement was remarkable for its rhythmic laxity, a problem that recurred in the "Recordare" and again in the dark, ominous march that begins the "Libera me."

A Davies Hall audience didn't have to think back very far to recall a more vigorous account of this music. It was only in 1995 that Donald Runnicles made his Symphony debut as a late substitution for Andre Previn and led an incendiary performance of the "War Requiem."

But Masur, who this year ended an 11-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, strangely decided to cede nearly half of the evening's work to Edwin Outwater, the Symphony's brilliant new associate conductor. And Outwater, conducting the chamber ensemble in all the English passages, provided the performance with most of its energy and moral impact.

He did that even in the face of only passable vocal contributions from tenor Jerry Hadley and baritone William Stone. Hadley's singing sounded as strained as ever, with big baying phrases and scoops up to pitch on high and low notes alike. Stone's singing, though shapely, was underpowered and struggled to project over the orchestra.

Soprano Christine Brewer had no trouble being heard; her singing was loud and bright, and had a wiry grace that made an alluring effect. The children's chorus -- a combination of the San Francisco Girls Chorus under Susan McMane and the Pacific Boychoir under Kevin Fox -- sang gamely from their aerie without much of the sound coming through.


The subscription program repeats at 8 tonight SAT and at 2 p.m. Sunday tomorrow SUN in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $20-$90. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to

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