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Music Detail

S.F. Symphony brings Mahler's vision to life

By Georgia Rowe
Contra Costa Times
Published: Friday, June 8, 2001

"Imagine the universe beginning to sing and resound," Gustav Mahler wrote of his Symphony No. 8. "It is no longer human voices; it is planets and suns revolving."

Music lovers got a chance to experience Mahler's vision first-hand in a concert Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall, as Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in a scintillating performance of the work also known as the "Symphony of a Thousand." The program, which concludes the orchestra's 2000-'01 subscription season, repeats Saturday and Sunday.

If Tilson Thomas wanted to close the season with a big bang, he couldn't have made a better choice. Mahler's massive 90-minute score represents the composer at his most operatic. It requires enormous resources, and, in the right hands, produces equally great rewards. Presiding over the orchestra, mixed chorus, boys' and girls' choruses and eight vocal soloists, the conductor shaped the 90-minute work — performed without intermission — into a cohesive musical drama of epic proportions.

Composed in two parts, the Symphony No. 8 is a striking combination of sacred and secular texts. It begins with the medieval Christian hymn "Veni, creator spiritus" (Come, creator spirit); the second half is a setting of the finale movement from Goethe's "Faust." Taken together, the two sections create an encompassing spiritual world, with the former's promise of grace and redemption wed with astonishing elegance to the latter's mystical glimpse of a perfect heaven.

Tilson Thomas conducted with palpable urgency, and the orchestra responded with some of its most unified playing of the season. "Veni, creator spiritus" came across with fierce impact, and in the prelude to Part II, there was remarkable clarity of detail forthcoming in every section.

Vance George's Symphony Chorus was simply awe-inspiring; producing weighty, opulent sound throughout, this ensemble continues to be a model for vocal ensembles everywhere. The San Francisco Girls Chorus (directed by Magen Solomon) and the S.F. Boys Chorus (led by Ian Robertson) made gorgeously ethereal contributions as various angel choirs.

The soloists were strongest among the high voices, with soprano Christine Brewer singing with lustrous tone in the Una Poenitentium's prayer to the Virgin. Soprano Lauren Flanigan (Magna Peccatrix) also produced pure, radiant sound. Singing from an upstairs terrace, Dominique Labelle made the most of her brief role as the Mater Gloriosa. Mezzo soprano Michelle de Young lent her customary focus and power to the role of Mulier Samaritana. Mezzo Jill Grove (Maria Aegyptiaca), however, often seemed to be struggling for audibility.

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey has impressed in previous appearances with the Symphony and S.F. Opera, and his suave performance Wednesday as Doctor Marianus confirmed his vocal gifts once again. The pleas of the two patres were eloquently presented by baritone Stephen Powell and bass Franz Hawlata.

San Francisco Symphony "Symphony of a Thousand"

  • Music Type: Classical

    Davies Symphony Hall
    201 Van Ness Ave
    San Francisco, CA
    (415) 864-6000

    Concert Times
    7 p.m.

    Ticket Prices

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