San Francisco Symphony's Dawn to Twilight festival featuring the music of Berg and Schubert concludes this week with a program featuring Berg's Violin Concerto and Schubert's Mass No. 6.
In the festival's previous concerts, I can't say that MTT succeeded in showing a convincing link between these two composers. I'm still not persuaded there really is one, however, this pairing created a program that at least made musical sense to me in that the two works relate to one another emotionally. The other concerts contained higher musical peaks (Bronfman's performance of Berg's Piano Sonata probably being at the top) but this one offered the most satisfactory overall experience.

Gil Shaham was again the soloist for the Berg concerto, reprising the role as he did the last time the piece was performed here in 2004. This was a distinctly more lyrical and moving account of the piece than what I recall from the performance of a few years ago, but then again, maybe MTT has succeeded in getting me to hear the lyrical elements of Berg more readily than I did before. This work, dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, is a two-movement portrait of beauty and sadness, life and death. Shaham gave a very involved, fluid account of the work, often turning to the orchestra and moving close to the players, as if he wanted to become one with them. The ending is pure genius- the orchestra fades away leaving the violin to play a heart-wrenching ending that goes through the entire twelve tone row yet leaves an impact similar to the conclusion of Wagner's Tristan. As I mentioned in a previous post, it's my opinion that Berg is unsurpassed at composing magnificent, devastating conclusions.

Schubert's Mass features an extraordinary workout for the chorus, whose performance of the Kyrie was simply a thing of beauty. Considering his mastery of song-writing and gift for melody, it's disappointing he was never successful at opera composition. The mass features five soloists- two tenors (Bruce Sledge, Nicholas Phan) a bass-baritone (Jeremy Galyon), a mezzo (Kelly O'Connor) and a soprano (Laura Aiken). The parts for the soloists are small compared to the chorus and their overall impact less because of it. Laura Aiken sounded a bit underpowered during this afternoon concert, though her voice remains a thing of beauty. Kelly O'Connor's small role gave a warm burnishing glow to Aiken's instrument when they sang in unison, but on its own really had nowhere in the score to shine. Sledge and Galyon were fine, though again there was no place in the score for a shining moment.

The surprise of the performance for me was the discovery of Nicholas Phan, who managed to soar above everything else and in his few moments of singing let loose a gorgeous Italianate tenor of remarkable warmth and strength. We need to have him across the street as soon as it can be arranged. I have a feeling he's going to become a singer of some significance. Interestingly enough, he is also a blogger.

The Mass, about an hour long, is also over-long and suffers from repetition, which dilutes its impact by the time it concludes. Regardless, special mention must be made of how wonderful the San Francisco Symphony Chorus was this afternoon. Ragnar Bohlin is doing a terrific job as their Director and I was watching the singers sway to the music I felt deeply moved.

As for the festival itself, musically it was a complete success. The guest artists were excellent across the board and each gave truly memorable performances. MTT and the orchestra gave us some superb Berg and got around to getting to the heart of Schubert's romanticism in the final concerts. Though the artistic link between the composers was never made apparent to me, I was appreciative of getting to hear their individual pieces, especially Berg's, during these past weeks.