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Thunderous, beautiful noise fills Davies as Symphony tackles Janácek's 'Glagolitic Mass'
- Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, January 8, 2005

That great big wonderful noise coming out of Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night was the sound of Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in Janácek's "Glagolitic Mass." You couldn't mistake it for anything else.

It's been 10 years since this towering, rough-hewn monument of sacred music was last heard in Davies, and the time was right. Vance George's Chorus sang at the peak of its considerable powers, a splendid quartet of vocal soloists caught the music's expressive urgency, John Walker delivered the organ solos with thunderous nobility, and Thomas and the orchestra brought crusty authority to the instrumental writing.

The cumulative effect was a performance of unstoppable potency and grandeur that resounded in the memory long after the final notes had faded away.

There is nothing tentative or fainthearted about Janácek's Old Church Slavonic setting of the Mass. It boasts the same gruff muscularity as the composer's other orchestral writing (particularly the great Sinfonietta), combined with a fierce concision that is his other chief thumbprint.

The broad, unbridled choral writing came through most impressively in this performance, with singing that blended transparent precision with blunt, almost rude vigor.

Yet the evening's most thrilling element was a dynamic debut by Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, whose huge, piercing tone and majestic phrasing enlivened her every utterance (and in this piece, the soprano gets the lion's share of the solo writing). Here is a singer of rare gifts and artistic intensity, whose return engagement should be eagerly awaited.

Her colleagues were scarcely less distinguished. Sergej Larin sang the tenor parts with fluid assurance, and the smaller assignments were well handled by mezzo-soprano Jill Grove and bass Tigran Martirossian.

If the "Glagolitic Mass" brought the program to an imposing conclusion, the evening's first half was a more intimate affair. It began with a wonderful piece of musico-pedagogical theater, a dozen excerpts from the late Luciano Berio's Duets for Two Violins.

These short inventions, written between 1979 and 1983, are part teaching pieces, part concert works and part musical tributes to friends and mentors (each of the 34 duets bears a dedication). Each is designed for one more and one less accomplished player -- paradigmatically a teacher and student -- although in some cases the difference is not especially marked.

On Thursday, the duets were played by a dozen pairs matching members of the orchestra with members of the Symphony Youth Orchestra. The young musicians needed no indulgence (indeed, one or two of them clearly outplayed their more experienced stand-mates), and the range of Berio's imagination -- from burlesque waltzes to neo-Baroque pastiche to austere modernist etudes -- never flagged.

The program's centerpiece, by turns beguiling and unwieldy, was the first local performance of Thomas' "Island Music," a percussion sextet completed in 2003 and premiered that year in Miami.

Scored for two solo marimbas and four supporting players, "Island Music" is a bagatelle grown to mammoth proportions, as if under the effects of a sci- fi mutation ray. At its heart is an almost fatally catchy tune that returns periodically before becoming overgrown each time by ornamentation and elaboration.

The music's rhythmic profile -- part Balinese gamelan, part mambo -- is enchanting, and the demanding solo parts were dispatched with elan by Jack Van Geem and Nancy Zeltsman. But at 30 minutes, "Island Music" is discursive to a fault, and the huge central section, which threatens to take over the entire piece, sounds transplanted from elsewhere.

San Francisco Symphony: The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. today in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $30-$103. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.

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

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