Hundreds of voices help S.F. Symphony lift Mahler's No. 8

Published Saturday, June 9, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Mercury News

Singers singing everywhere -- above and in front of the San Francisco Symphony -- are stretching their vocal cords in Mahler's Symphony No. 8 this week at Davies Hall.

It's almost an opera, the nearly continuous vocal music Mahler fashioned from a medieval tune (``Veni Creator Spiritus'') and the conclusion of ``Faust'' for this theatrical, grandiose two-movement symphony. The organ postulates; the cymbals crash; the trombones blare; and, near the end, so does a soprano.

At the opening performance Wednesday, that soprano was posted perilously high above the orchestra. On stage at either side of Michael Tilson Thomas' higher-than-usual podium stood three soloists whose singing delighted the audience.

The Mahler work is dubbed the ``Symphony of a Thousand'' because it has used, at various times, that many performers. But the version Thomas is leading for his season finale has more sensible numbers. In addition to the 100-plus members of the orchestra, there are close to 300 singers in the combined San Francisco Symphony Chorus and San Francisco Girls' and Boys' choruses.

The applause afterward indicated the audience loved the performance, though I could not sense such enthusiastic concentration during it. I suspect many were, like me, straining to follow the English texts in the program book, while the singers sang the Latin and German.

Thomas' attention was acute and focused; the long opening Hymn movement quivered with momentum. The choral outbursts were robust and jubilant.

The second (Goethe-inspired) movement is simpler in structure, though its tender pastoral stretch for instruments alone is followed by a sort of song cycle dealing with the Faust character's encounters with various representatives of the Eternal Feminine -- a Helen of Troy character, Madonna and whore characters (for whom Mahler uses Latin names) and a redeemed Gretchen, who helps the Faust character ascend to heaven.

Most enticing of the female vocalists were soprano Christine Brewer in the ``Una Poenitentium'' role and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Mulier Samaritana. Soprano Lauren Flanigan, who is usually exceptional, had some moments of glory, as well as some strain and pitch difficulties, as Magna Peccatrix. Pitch was not perfect, either, for Dominique Labelle, who makes the high-balcony appearance in the Mater Gloriosa role.

Best of show was tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who sang Doctor Marianus beautifully with acute expressiveness. Baritone Stephen Powell caught the expressive qualities of the Pater Ecstaticus role. Bass Franz Hawlata sang Pater Profundis with fervor.

Tilson Thomas deserves praise for pulling off this thing. The performance is also a victory for chorus master Vance George, who has led his troops through nearly all the significant repertoire in recent seasons, some of which has been issued on a new CD. George was in the lobby signing copies of the ``Voices of a Century'' afterward, and why not?

Contact Lesley Valdes at or (408) 920-5640. Fax (408) 271-3786.

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