seems inconceivable that almost a half-century
has passed since San Francisco Symphony audiences
last heard the Fauré Requiem,
one of the staples of classical music, especially
with several conductors in its history who
had a special flair for French music, including
the current music director, Michael Tilson
Thomas. The last time it was done here was
1956, with Enrique Jordá conducting.
Guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, aiming
for refinement and clarity, gave the work
a quiet dignity in a performance that underlined
just how superb the Symphony Chorus can be.
no mistake, the choral writing is the main
element that stirs the soul in Fauréís
Requiem. The orchestral writing has
an almost recessive nature and the two soloists
play a smaller role than most orchestral requiem
works require. It's the chorus that carries
the musical narrative through most of the
work, and the 100-some voices came through
with singing of remarkable purity. When the
tenors made their first entrance in the opening
Introit et Kyrie, spinning out a long, chant-like
line, the unanimity of pitch and timbre was
gorgeous to behold. When the sopranos rose
to a high C in the Agnus Dei, holding the
exposed note pianissimo until the rest of
the chorus settled in under them, the sound
was so angelic I had to check to see if the
soprano soloist was not surreptitiously supporting
the most mesmerizing aspect of the chorus'
work was in the sections that are reminiscent
of Renaissance polyphony. The long-spinning
tapestry of the Sanctus, for example, unfolded
with clarity that a much smaller ensemble
would envy. Their subtle phrasing throughout
seemed to inspire the orchestra to its best
work of the evening as well.
approach was simple and graceful. He didn't
try to stretch phrases or make any big statements.
His languid tempos opened up the words of
the mass text, which the chorus delivered
with excellent enunciation. Ashkenazy gave
the work just enough propulsion to keep things
moving smoothly. The result was a glow of
calm that radiated through the entire performance.
both scheduled soloists were sidelined by
illness, their replacements stepped in without
missing much. Both were Adler Fellows in the
San Francisco Opera's Merola program. Soprano
Nicolle Foland floated the lovely top line
of Pie Jesu, perhaps without quite the ravishing
sound of Barbara Bonney, who had been scheduled
to sing it, but with enough beauty of its
own to evoke a satisfied smile. Brad Alexander
employed his light but secure baritone to
give his part, especially the declamations
of the Hostias, enough power. Swedish baritone
Gabriel Suovanen was to make his symphony
debut in later performances.
program opened with Franck's seldom-heard
symphonic poem Psyché, a lushly
harmonic work that today sounds a bit old-fashioned
and could easily be mistaken as a score for
a romantic film circa 1940. Ashkenazy let
the erotically-charged sounds ooze unapologetically,
keeping the tempo moving enough so that the
piece did not overstay its welcome.
slight Symphony No. 2, which debuted
in 1940, filled out the first half in a pleasant
if somewhat uninflected performance. It's
a repetitive work, mostly for strings, that
never seems to get revved up until the coda,
a ho-hum pastiche of a Protestant hymn written
by Honegger himself that introduces a trumpet
in the final pages to double the hymn melody.
the Fauré followed and lifted the evening's
spirits, in more ways than one.