San Francisco Symphony marshalled almost half of the apocryphally required
thousand for Mahler's Eighth Symphony tonight, and produced as many as
15 glorious minutes during the work's 85-minute duration, but numbers
don't tell the story.
Sometimes all the ingredients are present for a performance, but it doesn't
turn out as well as it should. Consider the assets present in Davies Hall:
- Michael Tilson Thomas, well on his way to the title of "one of the top
Mahlerians" of our time.
- The Symphony, at the closing series of concert in a season that saw the
final phase of transformation into a truly major-league orchestra.
- Vance George's farewell contribution with the Symphony Chorus, polished
to a high shine over the years, and augmented mightily tonight with extra
singers, the San Francisco Girls Chorus and the Pacific Boychoir.
- A brilliant cast of soloists, not so much big-name stars as singers
eminently "right" for their roles: sopranos Marisol Montalvo (Magna
Peccatrix), Elza van den Heever (Penitent/Gretchen), Jennifer Welch-Babidge
(Mother Gloriosa), mezzos Stephanie Blythe, Elena Manistina, tenor Anthony
Dean Griffey, baritone James Johnson, bass Raymond Aceto.
Well, then, what is this obvious "but" coming? I wish I could put
my finger on "the" problem, but it's not that easy. Except for a few
wonderful instances here and there, and an impeccable finale - Montalvo,
van den Heever, and the women's chorus whispering "All that is impermanent..."
to a powerful (not just loud) climax - the performance simply did not
jell, too many obvious shortcoming propping up. With three more
performances coming, this "Symphony of a Thousand" will get much better
The first part of this 1907 double cantata, "Veni, creator spiritus,"
presented most of the problems. Unlike the finale, this was loud, big,
noisy. Unlike what is normally expected from George's chorus, diction
was awful; between "veni, creator" and the first "Gloria" - a span of
20 minutes - I didn't understand a single word. Unlike MTT's usual
consistency, the performance was all over the place: a rickety start, a
briefly clean, lucid section, then some bumpety-bump passages, and much
huffing and puffing, blowing the walls down.
The few purely orchestral passages later on did credit to the orchestra,
all sections doing their best, concertmaster Alexander Barantschik,
principal violist Yun Je Liu, and principal cellist Michael Grebanier
making affecting contributions.
Of the singers, the sensation was Montalvo, in her SFS debut. The tiny
soprano (with van den Heever towering over her) has an enormous voice,
her high notes are heavenly, and she alone sang without a score, exhibiting
a complete mastery of the material. Homegrown van den Heever had some
wonderful moments, opening her solo with the self-referential "You soar
to the heights," her mezzo-tinged soprano doing some marvelous soaring.
Blythe's "By the well" shook the house, in a good way. Griffey's gorgeous
voice impressed as usual, but at times he was squashed by Mahler or MTT
or both, and at the end of an otherwise beautiful "Look up, into the
eyes," this lyric tenor simply didn't have the needed helden edge.
A correction about who was not using a score: all the kids of the
children's choruses sang from the heart, in all meanings of the phrase.
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