San Francisco Symphony wraps season with a dramatic “Missa Solemnis”

June 24, 2011

Michael Tilson Thomas

The Ring cycle is clearly the big music draw in San Francisco this week but in the culturally rich city by the bay, there are always several events on tap to choose from.

The San Francisco Symphony is closing its season in grand style with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. The orchestra is set to kick off its ambitious centennial season in just three months, and Beethoven’s epic mass made a fine calling card for an ensemble that continues to flourish under the charismatic leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Along with his well-known bona fides in Mahler, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, Tilson Thomas is also one of our finest Beethoven conductors, and the dramatic, combustible performance of the Missa heard Thursday night at Davies Symphony Hall made that idiomatic sympathy manifest.

The San Francisco Symphony music director brought some challenging tempos, often to thrilling effect, as in the outer sections of the Gloria. At times one wanted more of a spiritual glow but the interior passages were largely sensitively done as with the expressive detailing and fluency of the Credo’s varied sections.

The orchestra played responsively and with fiery commitment throughout, some fitful brass disarray apart. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik’s silky-sweet solos in the Benedictus were balm to the ears.

Only the quartet, which looked like a strong lineup on paper, proved wanting. Christine Brewer’s middle range seemed to disappear and she had trouble coping with the stratospheric tessitura, her soprano more strident than ethereal. Katarina Karneus’s mezzo failed to project and was often inaudible. Gregory Kunde’s once-vibrant high tenor sounded worn and dry-toned.

Ain Anger was the standout among this uneven group, and the young Estonian bass’s vivid solo in the Agnus Dei offered the clear high point of the quartet singing.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus is among the finest vocal ensembles in the country. Scrupulously prepared by director Ragnar Bohlin, the 142-member chorus brought daunting power to the heaven-storming climaxes, handled MTT’s bracing tempo for the Gloria with aplomb and sang with rapt sensitivity in the moments of spiritual repose.

The Missa Solemnis will be repeated 6:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.; 415-864-6000.

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