When the last "evig..." of "Der Abschied" died away tonight, the audience
obeyed the conductor's upraised hands to savor the silence, and before
the applause started, the tenor - and many others - wiped tears away.
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony started the season
with a straightforward, fluid, affecting performance of Mahler's "Das
Lied von der Erde" in Davies Hall.
The two soloists were both Merola Program alumni: tenor Stuart Skelton
(1995) and baritone Thomas Hampson (1980), performing with great impact,
if not without problems.
Skelton's voice - right fach, phrasing and diction - was overwhelmed by
the role's Wagnerian-heldentenor-plus requirements, at times difficult
to hear even as MTT maintained the right balance. Also, Skelton lacked
the experience, performing from the score throughout - something not
quite effective when singing "a song of sorrow... (to) echo through
your soul"... "until the moon gleams in the black firmament." But,
again, the voice is a thing of beauty, and as these performances are
being recorded, microphones may make up for his lack of power.
Hampson, of course, is a famed veteran of the (Mahler-sanctioned)
baritone version, instead of the original alto. His performance was
clear, powerful, intelligent, but in comparison with the Hampson of five
years ago, also in this hall, some of the warmth and beauty of the voice
was no longer fully present. Even so, Hampson's stunning diction and
ability to project even the quietest passages through the wall put up
by the orchestra are extraordinary.
MTT's greatest accomplishment tonight was to present the work as a whole,
an hour-long gestalt. That virtue came at the cost of excesses being
reined in, and there is something slightly off about a consistent,
disciplined, even sort of Mahler.
An unexpected bonus was the authentic and near-flawless performance of
Mozart's Symphony No. 34, from a conductor and orchestra not exactly
known as Mozart specialists. The Allegro and Finale were both among the
very best heard in this hall, the Andante was gorgeous, if slightly
Mahleresque in its romanticism.
Disregard the small picks, try to catch this excellent concert on Thursday,
Friday or Saturday: www.sfsymphony.org.
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