This has been a banner week for hearing Mozart's valedictory works. San Diego Opera opened its production of the composer's final opera, "Die Zauberflote," last week at the Civic Theatre, and Thursday at Symphony Hall the San Diego Symphony and San Diego Master Chorale performed his "Requiem," the mysteriously commissioned work on which he was working when he died.
Guest conductor John Nelson presided over this "Requiem," infusing it with the dramatic intensity of the opera stage. His approach to Mozart's setting of the Mass for the Dead was neither liturgical nor devotional, but rather a heaven-storming testament to human struggle and triumph. Demanding thunderous climaxes and sprinting through fugues, Nelson drove his chorus and orchestra with unwavering conviction and unflagging energy.
Singing with its customary discipline and clear diction, the Master Chorale gave Nelson the alert, robust sound he commanded. In spite of these choral virtues and Nelson's swift pacing, a sonic monotony clouded the performance: The Master Chorale was either very loud or very soft, with few colors or moods between those extremes.
The orchestra firmly undergirded the choir and proved unusually pliant to direction. If the woodwinds added a host of subtle touches, their brass counterparts at times had trouble merely reproducing the notes.
Among the four vocal soloists, Christine Brewer took top honors. Her floating, creamy soprano and well-turned phrasing added a sorely needed touch of Mozartean elegance, although David Pittsinger's ringing, well-focused basso declaimed the "Tuba mirum" eloquently and gave the solo quartet a solid foundation, especially in the haunting "Benedictus." Constance Fee's bright, edgy mezzo was less winning, and Carl Halvorson's pleasant tenor never fulfilled its initial promise in the more expansive sections.
Nelson chose an unlikely concert opening, Mozart's anthem "Ave Verum Corpus," although his restraint and understatement could hardly be faulted for this familiar liturgical morsel. The Master Chorale remained seated on stage while the orchestra played with gusto Mozart's Symphony No. 36 ("Linz"), K. 425. Nelson's sleek interpretation made fast tempos even faster, although in the mellow second movement the maestro lingered long enough to savor Mozart's bucolic vision. Conducting the "Linz" Symphony, it appeared that Nelson was as interested in his own meticulously choreographed gestures and dramatic cues as he was in the details of the elegant opus. His affectation seemed strangely at odds with the program's serious intent.
This all-Mozart program will be repeated tonight at Symphony Hall.