By the bay, a passion for originality

Times Staff Writer

Mark Twain, as folks in the Bay Area love to remind visitors, famously said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. So it only makes sense that in this city, where the summer solstice typically arrives in fog, wind, drizzle and chill, symphony orchestras don’t heed their almanacs. Elsewhere in the country, players vacation -- recovering from winter seasons, putting on their pop wings or preparing for outdoor concerts. Not here.

At the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas is busily occupied with his earth-shaking interpretation of Mahler’s heaven-storming Second Symphony, sometimes known as the “Resurrection.” Giddy with Grammys for its home-grown CDs of Mahler symphonies, the orchestra is devoting its June festival this year to nothing but “Resurrection,” with a live recording to be made from seven performances.

The first was Thursday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, and it was overwhelming, so much so, in fact, that one wonders how the orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists and Tilson Thomas can possibly expect to maintain that level of intensity day after day through next weekend.

Meanwhile, across the bay Friday night, Kent Nagano concluded his 25th season as music director of the Berkeley Symphony with a single performance of another profound, epic spiritual statement expressed through orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists -- Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.” This band, however, is a funky enterprise, and no one in their right mind would want a recorded keepsake of the scrappy performance given in the acoustically dull Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley.


Still, Nagano’s passion proved unmistakable, and his devotion to the community orchestra that gave him his start is without equal in the orchestra world. How could a listener not be moved by the rapture with which these earnest performers embraced Beethoven’s most elaborate ode to world peace or by Nagano’s unique attempt to make its message universal and timely? It was, for better and worse, a “Missa” like no other.

Taken together, these two performances represent the extremes of slickness and status. But they also had something important in common. Tilson Thomas and Nagano are, at the moment, California’s two most prominent native-born conductors. Both have crafted unusual and significant international careers. But both continue to maintain, as interpreters, a feisty West Coast originality.

One of Tilson Thomas’ many accomplishments in his nine years as music director of the San Francisco Symphony has been to develop a singularly flexible orchestra. On the one hand, he asks the players for an unusual degree of individual expression, especially in the solo passages. On the other, Tilson Thomas likes to display an enormous degree of individual expression himself as he molds his Mahler with great deliberation.

When it doesn’t work, it’s a recipe for chaos, or at least self-indulgence. When it does, as it did magnificently on Thursday, it feels as if Mahler has been put under a microscope and an almost endless variety of new life has been found teeming beneath a familiar surface.


During the first movement, especially, it was easy to get lost in those details. A string tremolo that in an ordinary performance would set a mood became an arresting assertion all its own. Nothing else for a second or two seemed to matter. But the genius of Tilson Thomas’ performance was that the next thing to come along seemed to matter even more. And when he brought everything together in the climaxes, when he loosed the power of those many atomic building blocks, he produced a nuclear explosion.

Yet the most amazing aspect of this performance, which also included disciplined singing from the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the radiant soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, was the contribution from mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

Mahler’s symphony is a large-scale cry of anguish, an attempt to come to grips with the pain and suffering of life. The score ranges between nature’s innocent wonders and mankind’s self-destructiveness. The depths are reached in the fourth movement, which is a symphonic song, “Urlicht” (Primal Light) for mezzo and orchestra. It is a desperate plea for a ray of divine light, and Hunt Lieberson sang it from a depth that felt without bottom.

I’m not even sure you can call this singing. It was more like a channeling of primal emotion. Except that it was singing, with every tone beautifully in place.


The final movement, in which heavenly light does gloriously sear through orchestra, chorus and the two soloists, is pretty impressive under any circumstance. Tilson Thomas, however, followed Hunt Lieberson’s “Urlicht” with such a violent and ecstatic reaction, some will accuse him of overkill. That may be, but it’s hard to complain about a conductor who can stamp out despair in this way.

Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” may not be on quite so bold a sonic level, but it too is a staggering affirmation of faith. Although a Mass setting, the work is not about God but man, and it ends with a quietly persuasive call for peace. Nagano put a great emphasis on the here and now by including readings between each section of the Mass, with texts from Greek tragedy and the Bible that raised existential questions. The texts were expertly read by actress Jay Carlin, and accompanied by electronic music written by Edmund J. Campion. The concert in fact opened with Campion’s recent “Corail” for tenor saxophone and electronics, lovely lapping sounds played by Stephen Adams.

Nagano sculpted the “Missa Solemnis” with a wonderful sense of line and detail, elegance and expression in perfect balance. His Berkeley orchestra was responsive, but the weakness of the Oakland Symphony Chorus and four soloists (Shana Blake Hill, Miriam Abramowitsch, Bruce Sledge and Philip Skinner) was a significant drawback. Nagano’s is a fresh vision, and fresher voices might have made all the difference. But a full house, clearly grateful for the larger vision, didn’t seem to care.