Posted on Sat, Jan. 08, 2005

'Glagolitic Mass' a rare experience


These days, Janacek's "Glagolitic Mass" doesn't get played as often as his operas -- a shame, since the 1926 Mass is one of the Czech composer's crowning achievements. So it was thrilling to hear the work, performed in all its dramatic large-scale glory on Thursday night's San Francisco Symphony program at Davies Hall.

Leading the orchestra, the splendidly unified San Francisco Symphony Chorus and a team of first-rate soloists, music director Michael Tilson Thomas made a compelling case for Janacek's late-life Mass, which occupies a unique place in the 20th century repertoire.

The "Glagolitic Mass" was the main event on a program that also included Tilson Thomas' own "Island Music," and selections from Luciano Berio's "Duets for Two Violins," featuring members of the S.F. Symphony and S.F. Symphony Youth Orchestra. The concert repeats tonight at Davies Hall.

Adventurous music lovers are advised to secure whatever tickets remain, particularly to hear the rarely performed "Glagolitic Mass" (the San Francisco Symphony has played it only twice before, in 1985 and 1994).

Janacek's Mass may be infrequently played, but it is more than a novelty piece. In eschewing the traditional liturgical sources and embracing texts from the Old Church Slavonic, the Czech composer -- who was over 70 at the time of its premiere -- created a sacred work that was both wholly original and oddly universal.

It also represents the composer at the peak of his musical powers. Having honed his skills in great operas including "Jenufa," "Kat'a Kabanova" and "The Cunning Little Vixen," Janacek poured all of his dramatic skills into the Mass; the writing for orchestra is deft and brilliantly detailed, with episodes that suggest the Baroque majesty of Bach one moment and the driving minimalism of John Adams the next. The solo parts are deeply expressive and flattering to the voice. And the choral writing is nothing short of magnificent.

Thursday's concert brought all the pieces together in a performance of heightened drama. Tilson Thomas conducted with assurance and authority, and the sound in the hall was gripping -- particularly in the massive "Credo" that is the work's fervent centerpiece.

The vocal soloists were well-chosen, beginning with Measha Brueggergosman. Making her S.F. Symphony debut, the Canadian soprano brought beautiful, ringing tone and an air of the ethereal to her part. Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove sounded strong and articulate. Tenor Sergej Larin and bass Tigran Martirossian made handsome, eloquent contributions.

The performance also featured organist John Walker, who played the work's wild organ solo with particular flair, and concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, who offered sweet, beguiling tone in the "Sanctus." Best of all was the S.F. Symphony Chorus, which sang as one voice -- a voice of extraordinary power and focus.

There was more virtuoso playing in the concert's first half, which featured the first S.F. Symphony performance of Tilson Thomas' "Island Music." Composed in 2003, the work is inspired by the sounds and rhythms of Bali, and it is dedicated to three of Tilson Thomas' friends and mentors: Lou Harrison (who was a pioneer in the use of Indonesian gamelan), Bill Colvig and Ingolf Dahl. It is scored for a six-piece percussion ensemble, with rhythmic concerns taking precedence over melody; Thursday, marimbists Jack Van Geem and Nancy Zeltsman took the solo spots, with Raymond Froehlich, David Herbert, Tom Hemphill and Trey Wyatt playing various percussion instruments, including bongos, wood blocks, chimes, maracas and hand claps.

The evening opened with Berio's "Duets," which paired violinists from the S.F. Symphony with their younger counterparts in the S.F. Symphony Youth Orchestra in 12 excerpts from the work's 34 movements. Each movement is distinct and characterful, and the players, working without a conductor, gave vibrant performances. Tilson Thomas sat on one side of the stage for the performance, reading the score and looking enraptured.

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