Monday, June 02, 2014

Sacred Choral Music at the SF Symphony



In the Saki short story, Reginald on Christmas Presents, the eponymous young London aesthete declares, "People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die." That quip came to mind at last Friday's San Francisco Symphony concert which featured three Catholic choral works from the 20th century by Poulenc, Stravinsky, and Faure respectively. Though I may despise the Church for its misogyny and gay-bashing, the religious system that has inspired such great music will also probably never really die.



The Poulenc was the alternately bouncy and serene Gloria from 1960, composed a few years before the composer's death. Charles Dutoit conducted the orchestra and Symphony Chorus in a wonderful performance, abetted by the soloist Susanna Phillips above. The young soprano has one of the purest, most unforced voices I have ever heard in Davies Hall, and by the end of Gloria, some in the audience were ready to kneel in a "we are not worthy" diva worship posture.



The Poulenc was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and dedicated to the memory of its great conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who commissioned Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms in 1930, which was the second piece on Friday's program. As you can see above, the violins have vanished and been replaced by two pianos, an eccentric orchestration to accompany a chorus of three Psalms sung in Latin. The piece is characteristically Stravinsky spiky, alternating with more serene sections and an uncharacteristic sweet, soft, ethereal finale.



The SF Symphony Chorus, celebrating its 40th anniversary as an organizational mixture of professionals and gifted amateurs, is one of my favorite musical groups in the world. Under their director Ragnar Bohlin above, they seem to be getting better every year. Their ability to sing at every possible dynamic, and their wide range of repertory, from Bach to John Adams, is one of San Francisco's serious cultural treasures.



The final piece on the program was Faure's gentle Requiem, where there was more singing from the superb Susanna Philips and not-so-superb bass-baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann. My concert companion thought the conducting by Dutoit above was a little too serene, wanting a bit more dramatic shading between the seven movements, but I thought it was a masterful job by everyone, and the final In Paradisum really did take us through the Gates of Heaven.

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