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Schubert, Berg - eloquent passion

06.12.09
Gil Shaham
San Francisco Chronicle

The next time you're planning a festival of Schubert and Berg, take a page from the playbook of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. Get Gil Shaham to play the Berg Violin Concerto and the remarkable Symphony Chorus to sing one of Schubert's Masses.

Then relax - because whatever else may happen, you've got a hit on your hands.

The vindication of this strategy came Wednesday night in Davies Symphony Hall, during the glorious final program of the Symphony's 2 1/2-week Dawn to Twilight festival. As before, the connections between the two composers seemed sometimes palpable and sometimes a bit far-fetched.

But there was no denying the eloquence, fervor or sheer lustrous beauty of the two big works on the program. To go along with Berg's exquisite showpiece, Thomas led the first Symphony performance of Schubert's Mass No. 6 in E-Flat, the composer's final exercise in the genre and a marvelously idiosyncratic effort.

Both pieces were marked by precisely the same qualities that have run through the entire festival - a blend of communicative directness and sidelong insinuation, as well as an unpredictable attention to tonal and harmonic coloring. Thomas' sensuous, fluid conducting, more than anything, helped tie the two together.

He was aided in this by Shaham, who has made something of a specialty of the Berg concerto (in San Francisco, at least - he was also the soloist when Thomas last conducted the piece, five years ago). The two men seem to agree about treating the score's structural demands as no more pressing than its value as pure entertainment.

So the more theatrical touches in the piece - the dreamy opening for harp and solo violin, which Thomas evocatively compared in his opening remarks to a cinematic fade, or the insertion of a Bach chorale in the last of the concerto's four main sections - were given their full expressive due. And Shaham, whose playing was limpid and tonally resplendent throughout, rolled through the waltz music of the second section with the casual grace of a strolling cafe violinist.

That's not to say that the concerto's rigorous aspects were slighted - far from it. Berg's more arduous writing, especially in the third section, came through vividly. But this was a rendition that, quite rightly, focused all that energy on communication between the performers and the listeners, and the results were transfixing.

The Schubert Mass, which followed intermission in a luxuriant performance dedicated to the memory of longtime Symphony cellist Peter Shelton, proved no less arresting.

The abilities of the Symphony Chorus, led by director Ragnar Bohlin, stood revealed in the opening Kyrie, whose main episodes alternate between shadowy ripeness in the outer sections (the dark coloration is made more striking by the absence of flutes from the orchestra) and the crisply etched passages setting the phrase "Christe eleison."

The chorus' dynamic control in both sections was nothing short of astonishing, and the ensemble continued its triumphant march through the varied episodes of the Gloria, with its stark fugal conclusion, and into the luminous writing of the Credo.

The solo assignments in this Mass setting are so limited as to almost seem an afterthought. Still, they were superbly rendered by soprano Laura Aikin, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor - a magnificent singer who in two Symphony appearances now has been relegated to bit parts in choral works - tenors Bruce Sledge and Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Jeremy Galyon.