Mozart, Morty and Mindaugas

After a week of attending the spectacular Prince concerts,  I was looking forward to attending the San Francisco Symphony's performance on Friday to hear Mozart's Requiem in D Minor and Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel. This is a brilliant program and I obviously wasn't the only one to think this- last night's performance was completely sold out.

Axel and I agreed to meet beforehand at The Grove's new location at Franklin and Hayes and even though I got there shortly after 6, there was already a long line at the counter and few seats available. Anchor Porter in hand, I wedged in at a communal table between a group of women going to the ballet and a pair of quiet, polite gentlemen who appeared to have been together a long time and read the performance program while waiting for Herr Feldheim and my chicken pot pie.

I loved the Janus approach for this program. It's certainly not unusual to pair a modern masterpiece (having its first SFS performances) with an established classic, but this pairing was such perfect match of yin and yang it was all but guaranteed to be a satisfying evening. And it was.

It began with Lithuanian composer Mindaugas Urbaitis' (b.1952) Lacrimosa. Urbaitis' compositional technique for this is similar to that of the sampling found in hip-hop and some pop music. Take a piece of something existing and familiar, then weave it into other borrowed bits and create something new out of the old that sounds immediately familiar to those who know the source materials. In this work he used the Lacrymosa from the end of Mozart's Requiem. It's a five minute piece performed by the chorus. Led by Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin, the SFS chorus sang it with a clarity and beauty that made it much more than just an amuse bouche.

In the program notes for Rothko Chapel, James M. Keller rightfully notes this piece makes the listener actively work. There are almost silent passages and points of complete silence. It's demanding, it requires concentration, though if you mentally check out any point just jump right back in. It lasts about half an hour.

Michael Tilson Thomas has some remarks about the piece before they began, which included an amusing impersonation of the composer.

About ten minutes in, the week finally began to take its toll on me. Rather than actively working to hear the piece, I let its quiet hums and contemplative tones lull me into a state of contentment and checked out numerous times, only to be brought back in from time to time by the beauty of soprano Kiera Duffy's voice calling from the back of the hall or a particularly expressive passage by violist Jonathan Vinocour, who strode the stage as he played. The chorus again mesmerized.

After intermission came the Requiem, which I've never heard performed live before. Maybe the most operatic of all of Mozart's non-opera compositions, the Symphony did a great job of casting the soloists- Kiera Duffy's voice was gorgeous and bright; mezzo Sasha Cooke made lovely contributions- maybe it's because she's pregnant, but she had a richness in her voice this evening that was unlike any mezzo I've ever heard before. Every time she sang my attention was involuntarily drawn from wherever it had been back to her.voice, shutting everything else out. Tenor Bruce Sledge was also fine and Bass-baritone Nathan Berg was also compelling and distinct.

MTT took a brisk tempo with it, the orchestra and chorus followed gamely along, emphasizing the operatic qualities of the work at every possible point. Glorious, the full house gave it a tremendous ovation.

There is a final performance tonight. It's probably best to call the box office if you don't already have  a ticket (415) 864-6000.