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Bach & Schubert, Heidi Grant Murphy, (sop); Monica Groop, (mezzo); John Tassier, (ten); Chistòpheren Nomura, (bar), San Francisco Symphony, Bruno Weil, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, March 19, 2003 (HS)

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 " 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 lost.

Harvey Steiman

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