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Seen and Heard International Concert Review



One Tower and Two Tasty Trifles: San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, vocal soloists, organ soloist, percussion soloists, Michael Tilson Thomas, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, January 7, 2005 (HS)


 Léos Janacek was not a religious man. He grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church but openly professed a vague agnosticism during his lifetime. Like most composers with a dramatic bent, he could not resist writing a mass, and, Janacek being Janacek, there is nothing else quite like the Glagolitic Mass in the musical literature. Typically of this master of musical concision, the text is abbreviated from the lengthy Orthodox liturgy. It is in Old Slavonic, and it brims with power. I can't vouch for how well the chorus and soloists handled the Old Church Slavonic text, but the voices were preternaturally unanimous in their clarity of speech, and the sounds they and the orchestra produced left a Davies Hall vibrating with joy in this first subscription concert of the 2005 calendar year. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted.


If Janacek was the main course, then a series of quirky duets by the late Luciano Berio opened the program with a tart little hors d'oeuvre, and "Island Music," a modestly charming marimba-fest by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, offered a sort of tropical salad intermezzo. Charming and as well played as they were, they seemed inconsequential after hearing the meaty Janacek mass.


Written about the same time as the magnificent Sinfonietta, the Glagolitic Mass uses many of the same kinds of musical material. Like the Sinfonietta, it begins with a fanfare that relies on open fifths and octaves to create a spacious effect. It also ends with a fanfare, richer in musical texture (although, unlike the Sinfonietta, it's a newly developed theme, not the same music as the opening revisited). Also like the Sinfonietta, it keeps the orchestra busy with its own material, even while the chorus and soloists layer their own contributions on top.


Was the composer trying to say that religion operates on a different plane, in a different sphere that complements rather than integrates with regular life? He wrote this mass, according to biographers, responding to a personal challenge from the archbishop. Janacek had been lamenting the poor state of recent church music, and the archbishop basically said, "OK, let's see you do better."


Janacek certainly did that. There is much to chew on here, even some musical allusions that say the composer is not the firm believer one expects in a religious work. The wavering, Debussy-esque whole-tone figure in the Credo, to which he sets the word "verjuju" ("I believe") sounds either equivocal or quietly ecstatic, depending on your religious bent. It returns again and again, often after the music spins into much more complex territory. This is the longest and most complex section, and Tilson Thomas plays it out like a grand chess game. The contrasts between the hushed choral utterances and the drive of the orchestral development was mesmerizing.


Janacek amps up the fervor with choral outbursts, then hands the top musical line to the soprano or the tenor singing at the top of their ranges. Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman and Russian tenor Sergei Larin sailed through their work with the requisite feeling. Mezzo Jill Groves and bass Tigran Martirossian handled their smaller parts equally well. They made a fine vocal quartet, one I'd love to hear in, say, the Verdi Requiem.


After a somewhat mushy start in the opening fanfare and "Gospodi poliluj," which corresponds to the Kyrie, Tilson Thomas got things moving better in the "Slava" (Gloria) and finally reached a powerful level of intensity in the "Verjuju." The intensity hardly wavered in the "Svet, svet" (Holy, holy) and languorous calm of the "Agneba bosij" (Agnus Dei) cast a welcome balm over the proceedings. In a wonderful touch, Janacek has each soloist in turn sing the line, "Have mercy upon us," and sit down, having completed his or her work.


Janacek could have ended the mass with the placid repose of the Agnus Dei, but instead he turns to the organ for a rousing solo finale that gave the brilliant pipes of the Davies Hall Ruffati organ a workout under the fingers of John Walker, who has appeared with this orchestra several times. The orchestra returns for a fanfare-tinged recessional march that finishes with strongly punched chords. This is colorful stuff, through and through, and the cumulative effect is guaranteed to lift an audience in spirit.


In contrast to the sheer power of this mass, a set of miniature duets by the contemporary Italian composer Berio opened the program with a series of delicate moments. Berio wrote 37 of these unaccompanied duets, meant to be played by accomplished violinists and their students or younger colleagues. They are also little homages to other musicians, beginning of course with Bartok, who wrote his own books of unaccompanied string duets.


Violinists of the orchestra paired off with young musicians from the symphony's Youth Orchestra, each playing one of the duets in turn, as prescribed by Berio's own instructions. They did 12 of the duets, then ended, as Berio suggests, with the full complement doing a more fully orchestrated version of No. 20. For me, the most affecting ones were No. 6 (dedicated to Bruno Maderna), an off-kilter waltz played by Chen Zhao and the youth orchestra's Tony Song, No. 24 (for violin virtuoso Aldo Bennici), a folk-like nocturne played by John Chisholm and Michelle Choo, and No. 33 (for Lorin Maazel), a bravura piece of finger-busting virtuosity played by concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and Hannah P. Tarley.


Thomas' piece, which debuted in 2003 with his other American orchestra, the New World Symphony, uses four marimbas and a smattering of miscellaneous percussion. The melodic instrument of choice for the modern percussionist, the marimba can make some rich sounds, especially when sustained by a rapid "drum roll" technique. Played at piano or pianissimo, the sound can be haunting. However, a marimba alone, or even four marimbas, is still a pretty mellow sound. There isn't a lot of opportunity for contrast, and a half hour of marimba music, even as brilliantly played as this was by the symphony's principal percussionist Jack Van Gheem and marimba specialist Nancy Zeltsman, easily slips into tedium.


It didn't start out that way. Tilson Thomas begins with a slow, quiet introduction, which develops an almost Bach-like contrapuntal texture before segueing into a simple, catchy tune that one could easily imagine being played by a Caribbean steel drum band. Syncopated, jaunty, easily hummable, it becomes the "A" theme for a rondo that grows increasingly complex. As interesting as the musical development is, the monochromatic nature of mallets on wooden slats goes on for several choruses too long. Something more needs to happen to vary the colors, either the sound of a different melodic instrument or more varied timbres in the percussion.


In his composer's note, Tilson Thomas refers to Balinese gamelan music and the way his friend and maverick American composer Lou Harrison evoked the sound in much of his music after visiting the islands. A little more of the colorful sonic variety Harrison got out of hubcaps and coffee tins would have served this piece better. As it is, it's a pleasant divertissement for about two-thirds of its 30 minutes, and if offers virtuosic opportunities for the two primary marimba soloists.


As a laid-back tune-up for incendiary Janacek, however, it was just about perfect.



Harvey Steiman


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)