San Francisco Symphony takes Carnegie Hall by storm

February 23, 2001

By Cheryl North

New York City audiences, according to popular wisdom, are notoriously tough critics. And New York audiences accustomed to hearing the creme de la creme of the world's musicians in their own venerable Carnegie Hall are probably the pickiest of the lot.

Nevertheless, Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus brought this most discriminating audience to its feet for a standing ovation at the close of their Thursday evening performance - and, after an a capella encore of Randall Thompson's ``Allelujah" by the symphony chorus, this same audience was not only back on its feet for more enthusiastic applauding, but many of its members had moist eyes as well.

Not too shabby for the kids from the Western province.

Thursday's winning program began with Gustav Mahler's final composition, the Adagio from his Symphony No. 10, most of which was composed in 1910. It ended with a performance of his first major work, ``Das klagende Lied," for which he wrote both text and music in 1878.

This is the same program performed back home in San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall last week. Soloists too were the same: Christine Goerke, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Jon Villars, tenor; and Clayton Brainerd, bass-baritone; and of course, the Grammy-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus, trained to a fare-thee-well by Maestro Vance George.

What was not the same, however, was the stunning sensitivity and tonal beauty evident in the orchestra's Carnegie Hall performance.

Carnegie Hall, completed in 1891 and renovated in 1986, has long been famous for its acoustics. But last Thursday's concert was my first experience in the place - and believe me, it lived up to its reputation. The symphony sounded several magnitudes better at Carnegie than it had in Davies the previous week. I felt as though someone had handed me a new, better pair of glasses. Every sound, and all the attendant dynamic gradations, were delineated much more cleanly than in Davies.

At the very onset of the Adagio, the viola section's swelling arch of sound and subsequent diminuendo were set in diamond-sharp relief - but not because of any particular increase in volume. It was a little like comparing a stereo high-fidelity 33 1/3 rpm recording to a monophonic 78.

But there was more to come. The sonorities emanating from the cello and double bass sections seemed warm and steamy enough to melt the snow and ice forming on the building's overhangs outside. The gradations of sound Tilson Thomas was able to coax from the orchestra were seemingly infinite - even the sounds coming from the contingent of musicians playing from the upper balcony seemed uncommonly rich and voluptuous.

Moreover, the recurrent solo passages from the principals in the three string sections - acting concertmaster Nadya Tichman, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist Michael Grebanier - gleamed like golden flashes over the velvety orchestral background. And the trumpet's piercing cry that soars over the particularly anguished tangle of sound that leads towards the Adagio's denouement sounded less brutal in Carnegie than it did at Davies.

During the intermission, I climbed up to Carnegie's balcony to further check out the hall's acoustics. Sure enough, it seemed like every sound the flutes were making during last-minute practicing on the stage below had a clear channel right up to the ceiling. I felt like a kid loose in a candy store!

Except for one coarse coughing fit from someone, the audience seemed rapt during SFS' exposition of ``Das klagende Lied," which translates as ``The Song of Lament." Mahler himself set the old fairy tale,``The Singing Bone," into verse form, which he then animated even more magically with his evocative music and imaginative orchestration - and all at the age of 20.

Tilson Thomas seemed totally in tune with both Mahler and his receptive New York audience - and the result was magnificent. The soloists, too, performed eloquently, with all save the tenor benefiting from Carnegie's warmth. Villars' voice, as well as the timbre of some of the solo flute sections, seemed a bit too piercing and at times, even harsh.

Conductor and orchestra beautifully etched the work's many fascinating inner voices and set them in a satisfying context with the more obvious melodic elements. And the suppleness of the chorus' vocal lines, its dynamic flexibility, and the precision of its diction, were, as usual, outstanding.

I wish everyone could hear what our locals did to musically illuminate such passages from the Lied as ``The castle gleams from the high cliff;/Trumpets and drums resound;/There sits the band of brave knights,/And their ladies with gold necklaces ... "

Perhaps it's apt to paraphrase a different quote to sum up the performance - ``They came, they played, and they conquered."