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Mahler Symphony No. 8 "Symphony of a Thousand," San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, soloists, choruses, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 02.06.2006 (HS)

If the rest of the San Francisco Symphony's current cycle of Mahler recordings, captured from live performances, were not so exemplary, this subscription-concert rendering of the outsized Symphony No. 8 might have earned a thumbs-up. But it's a good thing the orchestra plans to deploy its recording equipment at some future date for this, the last leg of the marathon, and so didn't have to settle for this one.

The richness of sound and attention to balances in tempo and momentum that characterize this orchestra's Mahler work under Michael Tilson Thomas seemed to come in and out of focus in this performance. A highly uneven roster of vocal soloists didn't help, either. As a result, this was a Mahler Eighth that took a long time to rev up. When it did, on the final pages, it carried the requisite wallop, but along the way it tended to flag.

This was the third of four performances that concluded the orchestra's subscription year. Going out on a Mahler Eighth is a typically dramatic stroke for Tilson Thomas, and those final few minutes delivered sufficient thrills that it got the capacity audience on its feet for a prolonged standing ovation. But it was at times a long slog to get there.

Paradoxically, the opening bars seemed to rush. The tempo marking is allegro impetuoso, but there's such a thing as too much impetuosity. At the fast pace of "Veni creator spiritus," the assembled forces couldn't quite get the rhythmic spring that the opening gesture—a drop of a major fourth on "Veni"—should generate. This miscalculation made it difficult for the first movement to gather as much momentum as it could, despite the clear and typically precise singing from the Symphony's own chorus, the Pacific Boychoir and San Francisco Girls Chorus arrayed on the first level behind the orchestra.

Despite some brilliant individual contributions, especially the violin spins of concertmaster Alexander Barantshik, the problem in this first half was a surprising lack of ensemble phrase-shaping. Usually this is one of Tilson Thomas' strengths in Mahler. It all flew by too rapidly and without much distinction.

Things got better with the scene-painting of the second and final movement. The long opening section, a depiction in music of a mountain landscape, started promisingly, with a proper sense of wonder. But then the soloists stepped forward for their moments, and their unevenness brought the proceedings down to earth. The only truly glorious sound came from mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, whose presence made one wish Mahler had given Mulier Samaritana more music than he did.

As Magna Peccatrix Marisol Montalvo offered a relatively tiny voice, and as Gretchen Elza van den Heever made pretty sounds but invested little drama into the proceedings. Bass Raymond Aceto, the best of the three men, captured the sense if not quite the profundity of his role while tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and baritone James Johnson battled the high tessitura of their parts with intermittent success.

It wasn't until the final pages of the score, and the celestial voice of Jennifer Welch-Babidge as Mater Gloriosa emanating from a spot in back of the orchestra, high in the organ loft, that we heard any vocal magic in the same league as Blythe's. Not coincidentally, things got a whole lot better musically at that point. The final section starts with a quiet, long-phrased piccolo solo, articulated beautifully by Catherine Payne, and gradually builds to a huge climax. Mahler's musical depiction of Faust being welcomed into heaven is one of the great, grand musical sequences in the literature and despite Tilson Thomas' earlier struggles to find the momentum, he brought it off thrillingly. Every section of the orchestra seemed to lock in for the first time, with special appreciation for the rich, round brass sounds from the orchestra and a second brass section on a platform next to the organ pipes.

One can only hope he can capture that for the full 90 minutes of this score when the microphones are on for the final piece of the orchestra Mahler cycle. No date has been announced yet for that.

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)