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Subject: Mahler 8th in San Francisco
From: "Ruth C. Jacobs" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Ruth C. Jacobs
Date:Sat, 22 Nov 2008 17:57:50 -0500

text/plain (155 lines)

With eight opera singers, a double adult choir and two children's choirs, I think 
the Mahler 8th could qualify as an opera. Pasted below is Joshua Kosman's 
review from the San Francisco Chronicle; my comments follow: 

Music review: Symphony masters Mahler's Eighth 
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic 

Friday, November 21, 2008 

Mahler's Eighth Symphony has been a source of difficulty for Michael Tilson 
Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for years now, the one work in the 
composer's canon that seemed determined to elude their grasp. As one work 
after another emerged in glory from the orchestra's long-term recording 
project, this one drew postponements and not-quite-ready concert 

Well, that's all over now. 

On Wednesday night in Davies Symphony Hall, with the microphones on and 
the tape rolling, Thomas led a huge army of instrumentalists, vocal soloists 
and choristers both young and old - the Eighth's sobriquet "Symphony of a 
Thousand" is an exaggeration, but not by much - in a breathtakingly great 
performance of this fiendishly difficult score. 

It was a high point of this concert season, and the most assured and exciting 
live Mahler the orchestra has offered in years. If even some of the grandeur, 
clarity and specificity of Wednesday's concert can be captured on disc, this 
promises to be a triumphant capstone to the entire cycle. 

A success this comprehensive is impossible without contributions from all 
concerned. The orchestra produced its most robust and evocative playing in 
months, and the Symphony Chorus - attaining new heights under the 
leadership of Ragnar Bohlin - sang with unparalleled vigor. This performance 
also boasts the first truly flawless lineup of vocal soloists the Eighth has yet 
had in San Francisco. 

But the most definitive credit for this coup goes to Thomas, who presided over 
his forces with a combination of firm mastery and responsive sensitivity. More 
than in any recent performance, Thomas seemed to have taken the full 90-
minute measure of this piece and plotted it out with unerring care. 

And if ever a piece needed wrangling, it is Mahler's Eighth, a behemoth that 
constantly threatens to slip its bonds. Each of the two panels in this diptych 
presents its own set of challenges, and fitting them together coherently is the 
third piece of the puzzle. 

The opening movement, a setting of the medieval Latin hymn "Veni, creator 
spiritus," is a maximally dense exercise in virtuoso counterpoint, with many 
strands operating at once in close proximity. That is followed by a long, varied 
and theatrical setting of the final scene from Goethe's "Faust." 

The problems for a conductor are obvious. They involve keeping the first 
movement from collapsing into itself like some musical black hole, and 
connecting the potentially episodic structure of the second movement. 

That Thomas was more than equal to the challenge was clear from the 
symphony's opening minutes. The first measures, an explosive fireball of sound 
that imparts formative energy to everything that comes afterward, were 
thrilling, but that wasn't the hard part. 

Rather, it was the clarity and vividness of the ensuing 30 minutes that stood 
out. With the orchestra, and especially the first and second violins, spread out 
across vast distances on the Davies stage, Mahler's intricate counterpart - 
like Bach on steroids - emerged with unprecedented transparency. 

You could hear the almost physical impact of Mahler's writing in the most 
close-knit passages. But through it all there was also a vein of seductive 
lyricism that rarely makes it past those big sonorities. 

After disentangling the sonic snarls of the first movement, Thomas went on to 
stitch together the potentially disparate strands of the second. Even for 
devotees of Goethe's fragrant eschatology, this succession of one vocal solo 
and choral section after another can often seem to meander; but Thomas 
kept the rhythmic and dramatic momentum running steadily throughout the 

Perhaps most impressively, Thomas made his audience hear the coiled power 
of the first movement as the source of that energy. Even with a longish gap 
between the two movements, there was a link between them - of sensibility, 
of emotional impact, of kinetic charge - that I've never heard expressed so 

None of that would have been possible without the efforts of the Symphony 
Chorus, whose singing - mighty and volcanic in the first movement, celestially 
radiant in the second - was a constant source of wonder. The Pacific 
Boychoir, led by Kevin Fox, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, led by Susan 
McMane, made luminous contributions as well. 

And the lineup of vocal soloists was nothing short of magnificent. Sopranos 
Erin Wall and Elza van den Heever led the contingent with bright, piercing 
tones and uncannily precise intonation. 

Mezzo-sopranos Katarina Karnéus and Yvonne Naef - their singing earthily 
provocative and darkly elegant, respectively - handled the lower reaches. The 
male contingent, all of them superb, included tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, 
baritone Quinn Kelsey and bass James Morris. And near the end, soprano Laura 
Claycomb appeared in the balcony to sing the few lines of the Mater Gloriosa 
with seraphic intensity. 

Mahler's Eighth is a weighty and often exhausting undertaking, but a 
performance this fine is an exhilarating thing. When it was over, I, for one, 
was ready for an encore. 

San Francisco Symphony: Program repeats. 8 p.m. today and Saturday and 4 
p.m. Sunday. Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $30-$130. Call (415) 864-6000 
or go to 

Audio samples of the program are available at 

E-mail Joshua Kosman at [log in to unmask] e.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/11/21/DDI6148Q6A.DTL 

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle 


To me the stars of the evening were Mezzo Katarina Karneus, who was a 
stunning Countess Geschwitz in Lulu in Munich in 2004, and tenor Anthony 
Dean Griffey. That first "Veni, creator spiritus" was overwhelming. In the 
orchestra, I would single out principal flute Tim Day, principal cello Michael 
Grebanier, and harpists Douglas Rioth and Karen Gottlieb (*why* is she never 
credited in the program?). Baritone Quinn Kelsey was strong in the Pater 
Ecstaticus, making me regret I will not see his Marcello across the street 
(Brian Mulligan sang in the first cast performance I saw on Wednesday), Bass 
James Morris sounded subdued in the Pater Profundus and Katerina Karneus 
magnificent in something listed in the program as "More Perfect Angels." 

Anthony Dean Griffey poured out wave after wave of glorious tenor sound in 
Doctor Marianus, with Michael Grebanier joining him on "Wenn du hehr 
geheitest" and Ms. Karneus, elegant in a red satin gown, again was beautiful 
in Mulier Samaritana;; Yvonne Naef better than I have heard her before in 
Maria Aegyptiaca. Generally I do not care for Elza van den Heever's voice but 
she was good in Una Poenitentium and Laura Claycomb angelic in her brief 
appearance singing from First Tier Section A in Mater Gloriosa. Mr. Griffey 
again magnificent in his final lines as Doctor Marianus, and in the final Chorus 
Mysticus, Tim Day, Douglas Rioth and Karen Gottlieb were appropriately 
ethereal; when Michael Tilson Thomas, a firestorm of energy throughout, 
turned to the audience to conduct the brass in the top of Second Tier, I was 
in tears. What a magnificent evening!   Ruth C. Jacobs, San Francisco

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