SF Gate        www.sfgate.com        Return to regular view

Chorus gives Symphony a boost
Ashkenazy, singers mix passion and restraint in Fauré's Requiem
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, January 23, 2004
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback | FAQ

URL: sfgate.com/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2004/01/23/DDGK64FF6H1.DTL

Illness sidelined not just one but both of the scheduled vocal soloists for Wednesday's San Francisco Symphony performance of the Fauré Requiem. But it couldn't touch the singers who wound up making all the difference anyway: the remarkable musicians of Vance George's Symphony Chorus.

Fauré's sweetly consolatory masterpiece includes a handful of short assignments for a soprano and baritone, but the chorus is the heart and soul of the work. Singing in Davies Symphony Hall under guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Symphony Chorus infused the performance with a powerful degree of understated emotional intensity.

That subdued fervor -- the way Fauré's choral writing seems to hum with a spiritual vehemence that never quite bursts the bounds of gentility -- is the key to the Requiem, a repertoire staple that the Symphony has performed, astonishingly, only once before, in 1956. (This week's performances are dedicated to the memory of Waltraud Blomstedt, the late wife of conductor laureate Herbert Blomstedt.)

And it was the guiding principle of this performance, not only in the choral singing but also in Ashkenazy's lithe, light-handed conducting and the elegantly focused playing of the orchestra.

Right from the opening "Introit and Kyrie," the combination of passion and restraint was apparent. The effect of the choral singing was almost paradoxically potent, marked by a blend of crystalline diction, sumptuous phrasing and overall modesty of means.

Yet even within that generally muted palette, the chorus found a wealth of colors and textures to exploit, from the seraphic shimmer of the Sanctus --

certainly the score's most irresistibly beautiful stretch of music -- through the darker hues of the "Libera me" to the translucence of the final "In Paradisum."

The two substitute vocal soloists, both former Adler Fellows, handled their last-minute assignments with aplomb. Soprano Nicolle Foland, replacing Barbara Bonney, sang the "Pie Jesu" with her customary pure tone and suave phrasing, but also with a vibrato that sounded alarmingly wide and quavery.

Baritone Brad Alexander stepped in with just a few hours' notice for Gabriel Suovanen, a Swedish singer scheduled for his Symphony debut, and dispatched his two solos impressively. The "Hostias et preces," light-toned but with a commanding presence, sounded particularly strong. (A Symphony spokesperson said Suovanen would sing the remaining performances if he recovered.)

Ashkenazy devoted the first half to some relatively rare French repertoire, beginning with a lovely account of César Franck's orchestral tone poem "Psyché."

Based on the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, this is fairly sexy stuff, albeit in a muttonchops-and-daguerreotype sort of way. The four movements are full of voluptuous string lines and warmly sustained brass chords that ascend in the third movement to a heady erotic climax.

The performance was unbeatable, led by the strings and spurred along by Ashkenazy's crisp but flexible rhythmic mastery. Clarinetist David Breeden got the first movement off to a tender, shapely start.

Filling out the program was Arthur Honegger's ghastly Second Symphony, a three-movement affair for strings that rides a few threadbare musical ideas into the ground relentlessly.

The first movement is the worst, a nattering romp built on a tiny, drab melodic theme that becomes no more interesting after what seems like hundreds of literal repetitions. The piece ends with an embarrassing deus-ex-machina appearance by a solo trumpet, underscoring an invented chorale melody that injects a wan note of triumph into the proceedings. The orchestra, to judge from its lax, grainy playing, sounded unconvinced by any of it.

San Francisco Symphony: The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. tonight(FRI) and Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $30-$97. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback | FAQ

  Page D - 3