A Missa Solemnis ends the San Francisco Symphony Season

Beethoven, Missa Solemnis: San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Christine Brewer (soprano), Katarina Karnéus (mezzo soprano), Gregory Kunde (tenor), Ain Anger (bass), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 23.6.2011 (HS)

After a season of many highlights, including some thrilling Mahler symphonies, music director Michael Tilson Thomas chose to end the concert year with what should have been another pinnacle-Beethoven’s highly spiritual Missa Solemnis. Tilson Thomas has led some extraordinary Beethoven performances over the years. He started his tenure here with an unforgettable Ninth Symphony, but this venture came up short on the thrill scale. It lacked nothing in earnestness and dedication, but only occasionally reached the heights Beethoven envisioned.

Part of the problem was a cadre of mismatched soloists. Mezzo soprano Katarina Karnéus and bass Ain Anger were both solid, although neither fields a distinctive-sounding voice. Although soprano Christine Brewer (who has appeared often with this orchestra, memorably in a Verdi Requiem a few years back) sang with gorgeous tone, she unleashed a few unsteady notes and never seemed to lock into the musical style. And tenor Gregory Kunde just seemed muffled and strained.

There were many beautiful moments, especially when the chorus took the forefront. The opening Kyrie created a serene mood, and the lively, almost dancelike Gloria followed with a contrasting lilt. Again and again, a cappella sections were the most compelling, except for when concertmaster Alexander Barantschik wove long and eloquent filigrees with his solos in the Sanctus.

Uncharacteristically, however, Tilson Thomas seemed preoccupied with just getting through the score unscathed rather than finessing some sort of cohesion in the music. Granted, Beethoven’s mass repeatedly veers from grandiose to delicate, but great performances find a way to reconcile those opposites into something that drives forward. Instead, each shift in the music seemed like someone punched the reset button.

In the end, the gorgeous calm of the “miserere” sections that conclude the final Agnus Dei spread a balm of beauty. It may not have been great Beethoven, but it got the job done.

Harvey Steiman