Friday, January 07, 2005

Roughly Glagolitic -- MTT does Janacek

Cheerful, enigmatic and evocative all at once, Janacek's irresistible Glagolitic Mass is in many ways a disaster-proof piece. And that's a good thing, because it is a incredibly challenging piece of music -- from the trickiest of compound rhythms to the crushing tessitura of the difficult soprano and tenor solos; the challenging diction of the Old Church Slavonic text; the conductor's tight-rope act of balancing the marvelous orchestral voicings against the boisterous brassy sections; and the massive, frenzied final organ solo.

That's essentially what we had this past week at the San Francisco Symphony, when Michael Tilson Thomas brought back this marvelous piece to Davies Hall, after a ten year absence. The work's irrepressible dynamism was all there, as was the mystic moods and rhythmic vitality. I'll take energy and spirit over precision any day, yet one must note that it this was a reading lacking in polish and refinement -- sort of in the way when a crack team of musicians perform severely underehearsed.

With a poorly coordinated orchestra and chorus serving as the backdrop to an odd set of soloists, the performance suffered with persistent balance problems. Constantly, the brass section would drown out the beautiful, intricate rhythmic patterns, set against the tender and wistful melodies of Janacek's modal universe. To top it off, Thursday evening's performance evidenced the sloppiest rendition I've ever heard of the monstrous organ solo, chunky and disconnected, played by guest organist John Walker.

Still, the evening provided many new revelations. Sporting an outsized 'fro' hairdo with elegant highlights, the young Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman proved to be an enormously promising dramatic soprano in the making, as she offered a credible full-voiced account of her assignment. The only indication that her instrument might benefit from a more judicious maturation came in the emphatic upper reaches of Janacek's writing, when Brueggergosman pushed her tone a bit excessively in an effort -- entirely unnecessary -- to be heard above the orchestra.

The other surprise was veteran tenor Sergei Larin, whose body mass has shrunk dramatically since his last local appearances, and apparently so has his voice. He is now a Tamino-sized tenor, and against the uncompromising volume of orchestra, he stood little chance of being properly heard -- MTT could have helped him by reigning in the orchestra a bit, but apparently chose not to. Mezzo Jill Grove delivered her miniscule assignment with warm aplomb, as did Armenian bass Tigran Martirossian.

Janacek's setting of the liturgical text is a decided change of pace from the traditional treatment of the Latin Mass text. The cries of "Veruyu" (the traditional Credo in the Latin text), for instance, are not a jubilant affirmation of one's belief in one god, but rather a frightful revelation -- as if a bunch of sinners had just witnessed a miracle which makes them repent. Vance George's San Francisco Symphony Chorus seemed to enjoy itself, as it captured the work's shifting moods and proper spirit.

The first half of the evening was occupied by a delightful series of Luciano Berio's instrumental duets, written for teacher-pupil pairs. It gave MTT the opportunity to invite gifted members of the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra to perform in a main subscription concert, pairing them with the orchestra's regular members. This was followed by "Island Music," a piece by Tilson Thomas himself, scored for a marimba ensemble. Though it had obvious charms, one felt a bit captive in seated in the hall, as the plunking went on in a seemingly amorphous manner.

© 2005 C. Chang

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