It should have been something special. Less than an
hour after its audience heard the news that United States armed forces
had taken their first Tomahawk missile shots at Saddam Hussein in Iraq,
the San Francisco Symphony played a subscription concert that might
have been the perfect balm. Two canatas by J.S. Bach and a mass by Franz
Schubert seemed like just thing to stir souls trying to deal with this
plunge into violence. Flaccid performances, alas, robbed the evening
of its power.
Conductor Bruno Weil, known in these parts for his
leadership of the Carmel (California) Bach Festival each summer, led
stodgy readings of the cantatas Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zegen
and Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.
The first, an early work that traces a feeling of despair
as it becomes joy through faith, was notable mainly for the clarity
of Monica Groop's luminous mezzo soprano. In her aria, Kreuz und
Kronen, she brought the only sense of depth to an otherwise routine
reading. Even the symphony chorus, which can usually be counted upon
to bring something special to the equation, sounded wan and distant.
The other cantata, which includes the appropriate words
"...in trial and tribulation He has always stood by us," pitted the
light-voiced soprano Heidi Grant Murphy against a florid trumpet obbligato
played with utmost delicacy by the orchestra's principal, Glenn Fischtal.
For all his efforts to keep it subtle and for all of Murphy's accurate
coloratura, her milky sound just couldn't muster the metal to blend
with the trumpet in Bach's inspired parallel roulades. This put a damper
on the finale, a joyful Alleluia, which sent the audience into
intermission with a shrug rather than a lift.
Matters improved marginally with the Schubert Mass
No. 5 in A flat major. Once again, the chorus seemed not to be engaged.
It tossed off the Gloria, and finished with an anemic Agnus
Dei. What should have been heartbreaking was merely unhappy.
In September 2001, the week after the terrorist attack
on the World Trade Center, this same orchestra (under music director
Michael Tilson Thomas) gave a cathartic presentation of the tough, thorny
Mahler Symphony No. 6. (Proof of its power is a live recording, which
won the 2003 Grammy for best orchestral performance this year.) Chalk
up this concert of Bach and Schubert religious works as an opportunity