THE MUSIC MAN
With Seán Martinfield
MAHLER'S 8TH - At the San Francisco Symphony
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.
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