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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

MAHLER'S 8TH - At the San Francisco Symphony

By Seán Martinfield

June 5, 2006

In the classic film epic, BEN-HUR, the title character becomes the most celebrated Charioteer in the Empire and is once again fitted with the winner's crown of laurels for having raced his patron's team to victory in the Great Circus of Rome. Time to extend yet another such wreath of victory to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas for his extraordinary command and guidance over the four separate teams racing through the great circus that is Mahler's 8th Symphony. Affectionately and appropriately known as the "Symphony of a Thousand", the work will be broadcast June 13th on KDFC 102.1 and is scheduled for recording during the 2008-09 season. Only Maestro MTT knows what needs to be polished and buffed between now and then. From the majestic beginnings of Part One with the grand choral assemblage calling upon the Creator Spirit to "visit these thy souls" to the final moments based on Goethe's text from FAUST - "Here, the unattainable becomes real / The indescribable, here it is done" - this final performance (Saturday, June 3rd) thrust itself against the Gates of Heaven. Can the 2008 rendition possibly find itself closer to the Divine?

In the center ring with Conductor MTT and the collected virtuosity of our Symphony members were eight guest soloists - one being a brief cameo appearance by soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge as the Virgin Mary or "Mater Gloriosa". Her precious two stanzas being reserved until the final countdown (isn't it always?) and physically located close to the ceiling in the utmost upper-right corner alcove of the Symphony Hall (let's add a swirling mist for 2008), this is not a role for anyone with an attitude problem toward small parts and/or a nervous fear of heights. In the opposite corner, an equally brave and tuxedoed herald from the brass section. Down front, the seven Principal Singers, a veritable textbook of vocal categories. Lovely and petite lyric soprano Marisol Montalvo proved that even the most delicate of voices can shine through the bombardment of a full symphony orchestra and three separate choruses. Next to her, Elza van den Heever, recently graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and perhaps the youngest legitimate dramatic soprano to ever sing Mahler's 8th, was clearly in Heaven, her resonant upper register soaring to the back walls. Mezzo-Soprano Stephanie Blythe knows a promising diva when she sees one, having made her own debut with the SF Symphony during the 1998 performances of this same work. Coming up on her impressive international schedule is the fiery "Azucena" of IL TROVATORE at Covent Garden, then on to Opera Colorado for the title role in GIULIO CESARE. Russian born Elena Manistina anchored the quartet, rendering a beautiful demonstration of her rich contralto. On her calendar? A recital at Carnegie Hall.

On the Conductor's right, a dream trio of stout-hearted men. High lyric-tenor Anthony Dean Griffey maintains a dual career in both opera and the symphonic/choral repertoire. Equally at home with the leading roles of Benjamin Britten and Mozart, the Mahler 8th is perfectly suited to him with its invitation to passionate expression and spirited objectivity. This summer he will be in Japan under the baton of former SF Symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa performing in Mendelssohn's ELIJAH. On the far left, the virile bass-baritone of sinisterly handsome Raymond Aceto. Not surprising on his list of operatic credits is the role of the Devil himself as fleshed-out in Boito's MEFISTOFOLE, Gounod's FAUST, and LA DAMNATION DE FAUST by Hector Berlioz. Tonight, as "Pater Profundis" (designated to the lower regions) the bass boards rattled with his hard-driving and inflamed aria - the translation reading, "As the canyons at my feet rest heavily in the depths". He and all the rest of us were panting with the final plea of, "Oh, God! Calm my thoughts, enlighten my longing heart." (Or, as St. Augustine might note, "But not just yet.") In the center, the exquisite baritone of James Johnson. Already familiar to me in a beautiful recording of Zemlinsky's "Lyric Symphony", Mr. Johnson took ultimate control of (and damn near stole) the solo spotlight in his formidable presentation of "Blicket auf, auf zum Retterblick" (that being, "Look up, up in to the eyes that will save you") - referring to the Virgin mentioned above, way above.

There's more!

Including Michael Tilson Thomas, this production of Mahler's 8th involved a total of four conductors - the other three being Bay Area residents and internationally acclaimed Choral Leaders. I am proud that THE SAN FRANCISCO SENTINEL has previously lauded Symphony Chorus conductor Vance George [see article, "MOZART and HAYDN - Voices at the SF Symphony"]; Pacific Boychoir conductor Kevin Fox and their participation in the recital of Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky [see review from January 31, 2006]; and conductor of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, Susan McMane [see article, "LOOKING AHEAD - Young Bay Area Talent"]. Placed side by side in the rafters behind the orchestra and above the collection of larger-than-life guest singers, three independently successful groups under separate leadership came together as one - with one heart, one mind, and one intention - to play Follow The Leader with the hero at the podium; the one with the tireless arms, driving the hottest chariot in town, Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

Hail, Maestro!
Hello, Mahler.




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