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Bach expert Weil shows a talent for Schubert
Cantatas come off worse than Mass
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, March 22, 2003
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As music director of the Carmel Bach Festival, Bruno Weil is best known to Bay Area audiences as a Bach interpreter. But Schubert wound up faring much better than his Baroque predecessor during Weil's San Francisco Symphony debut in Davies Symphony Hall.

Thursday's concert was most memorable for the bravura performance of Vance George's Symphony Chorus, 30 years old this season, in Schubert's Mass No. 5 in A-Flat. All of the qualities that have enlivened the chorus' strongest performances over the years -- textural nuance, dynamic range, clarity and precision of response -- were amply in evidence this time around.

The A-Flat Mass, which has never been done by the Symphony before this week,

calls for nothing less. Apparently written without any immediate prospect of a performance (unlike Schubert's earlier efforts in the genre), this is an ambitious attempt to fuse the demands of sacred choral music with the composer's burgeoning symphonic sensibilities.

It doesn't always work, but with Schubert, even his miscalculations can be more fascinating -- and more charming -- than the smooth successes of a more assured composer.

A more experienced composer, to take just one example, would never have contemplated for a moment writing the awkward, galumphing horn octaves with which Schubert begins the Sanctus. Yet, there is an oddly endearing quality to the passage, reminiscent of hippos in tutus, that blends nicely with the more forthright choral setting of the Latin text.

Most of the 45-minute setting, though, boasts the dramatic urgency, harmonic inventiveness and melodic fluency that infuse Schubert's mature symphonies and chamber works.

The Kyrie moves forward on the momentum generated by a simple melodic gesture, an abrupt rise of a minor third that keeps interrupting the movement and creating harmonic tension that must be resolved. The Credo is a model of responsiveness to the Latin text, full of telling detail, and the quiet close for the "Dona nobis pacem" is ravishing in its simplicity. Even the big fugal setting of the "Cum sancto spiritu," a compulsory nod to the traditions of Mass writing, is carried off with panache.

The chorus dispatched all of this with wondrous verve and sensitivity. The Gloria emerged in a powerful rush, vigorous but well-controlled, and the contrapuntal transparency of the fugue was not hindered at all by the weightiness of the chorus' sound. The dynamic range in the "Et incarnatus est" was astounding.

Weil, who during his tenure in Carmel has broadened the festival's repertoire to include all manner of sacred choral works -- most notably the Haydn Masses -- shaped the performance deftly. His strongest point as a conductor is his ability to generate and channel rhythmic momentum, and that was evident again throughout the performance.

The vocal soloists -- soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, mezzo-soprano Monica Groop, tenor John Tessier and baritone Christopheren Nomura -- sang well, particularly in the solo interjections of the Kyrie and the exposed trio of the "Benedictus."

The first half of the program, dedicated to two Bach cantatas, came off less well. Cantata No. 12, "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen," featured exquisite solo work by oboist William Bennett and some nicely shaded singing from the chorus. But Weil's conducting was uncharacteristically ponderous, and of the three soloists, only Grope lent much allure to her assignment.

More dismaying still was Murphy's embarrassing stab at the virtuoso cantata No. 51, "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen." Glenn Fischthal blazed through the trumpet part superbly, but Murphy, lacking both the tonal clarity and the coloratura technique to do justice to this demanding showpiece, unleashed a series of shrill, out-of-tune phrases that barely made it through in one piece.

Weil obligingly slowed the tempo down when Murphy ran into trouble, then sped up again when the music was safely back in the orchestra's hands. This was considerate of him, but it made the performance all too reminiscent of a student recital.

San Francisco Symphony: The subscription program repeats at 8 tonight and at 2 p.m. Sunday in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $15-$87. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.

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

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