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Published Friday, Feb. 16, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

A memorable night of Mahler


Mercury News

The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus' East Coast tour preview concludes at Davies Hall this weekend with music by Gustav Mahler, early and late. Very early and very late.

Music director Michael Tilson Thomas opens with the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony, the only movement of five completed by Mahler before his death in 1911. (Deryck Cooke and others would go on to finish symphonic arrangements whose performances are still the subject of debate.)

Far removed in both time and mood from the Tenth is the vocal cantata ``Das klagende Lied,'' which Mahler designated his Opus 1, the first score revealing his musical voice.

Both were given rousing performances Wednesday night.

The Adagio, whose stirring opening is for violas, was securely and ardently led by principal Geraldine Walther, whose section is capable of considerable beauty. When the horns entered, followed by the second violins, the effect was memorable.

Violas and brass -- the trumpets, trombones and tuba building a terrific head of steam -- were the heroes of the Adagio, though all the instrumentalists proved their mettle to meet Tilson Thomas's demands for a spiraling, romantic tension.

There were times, however, when one wished for more warmly centered and refined tones from the first violins. Acting concertmaster Nadya Tichman, working overtime for several years while awaiting a new first violin (Alexander Barantschik arrives in September), must be growing tired. Her leadership, while on the mark, was not consistently eloquent.

The Adagio dates from 1910, ``Das klagende Lied'' from 1880. Mahler was 20 when he composed the music for the cantata, built around a fairy tale; he was only 17 when he wrote his own text for a story he'd heard in many versions since childhood.

The ambitious score suggests a man of confidence and a hugely romantic persuasion. However, to contemporary ears, the 40-minute work sounds like a Richard Wagner mini-drama, full of big-throated lyricism, instrumental bluster and delicate woodwind writing that conjures a mythical forest.

Here's the story, though you won't need it if you're going to Davies this weekend; supertitles are projected on a screen above the choristers: Two brothers vie for the hand of a misogynist (yes!) queen who has announced she will marry only the man who finds a flower as beautiful as herself. The younger finds it but, while sleeping, is murdered by the elder.

Later, a minstrel comes upon a white bone with magical properties; it can be played as a flute -- a flute that sings the story of a murder. The minstrel takes it to the queen's wedding celebration, where its music unhinges the guilty bridegroom.

The emotions in the three-section work rise on a tide of sorrow that calls for tremendous swells from the chorus. When not commenting on the fairy tale, four soloists take turns narrating.

The standout Wednesday was mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, whose singing was molten legato and who projected the German lyrics nicely. Soprano Christine Goerke at times sounded like a nightingale, and her duos with DeYoung were impressive; but Goerke disappointed, as well, especially in the passage that ends the musical story. Jon Villars' tenor was commanding but sometimes less than fluid; he does color his work with emotion, and his interpretation of the sorrowful second movement was persuasive. I hope to hear Clayton Brainerd, who was making his debut, on this stage again; the bass-baritone sang expressively, with luster, but his part was limited.

The upcoming tour, which opens Wednesday at Carnegie Hall with music by Stravinsky and continues there Thursday with this Malher program, marks the first time the chorus has accompanied the orchestra; to cover costs, Friends of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus raised $150,000, including one $50,000 gift from a donor who wished to remain anonymous. The chorus will return home after the Carnegie Hall performances, but the orchestra will go on to perform on Long Island and at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Contact Lesley Valdes at lvaldes@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5640.

San Francisco Symphony and Chorus

Michael Tilson Thomas, music director
Performing: The Adagio from Symphony No. 10 and ``Das klagende Lied,'' both by Gustav Mahler
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 tonight-Saturday
Tickets: $15-$80
Call: (415) 864-6000, or visit www.sfsymphony.org
Et cetera: Concerts are preceded by an ``Inside Music'' talk by Alasdair Neale, 7 tonight-Saturday
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