I attended the Friday the 13th performance of Charles Dutoit conducting the SF Symphony and sure enough, a sexy young woman was brutally murdered on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall. The program started like most horror movies, with an Idyllic opening sequence designed to lull the audience into a false sense of familiarity before the mayhem ensues. Debussy's Prelude to L'Apres midi d' un faune was everything we remember from Music Appreciation 101: bright, warm, inviting as a cool breeze on late June afternoon. It made one remember why it deserves its place on the curriculum. In the hands of a great orchestra it's bullet-proof and this performance was no exception. Next was Stravinsky's Symphony in C- a work I was greatly looking forward to hearing live for the first time and it was terrific. The call and response between the various instruments, the paired melodies, the way each section of the orchestra (even the basses!) had its shining moment and the lovely closing section was extraordinary. I'm not enough of a ballet fan to know if this piece has been used before, but I would love to see Yuri Possokhov create a ballet around this joyous, driving music, composed during one of Stravinsky's darkest moments.
Little did I know it was to be my last happy moment that evening- kind of like when the kids are listening to "Sweet Home Alabama" on their way to the Skynyrd concert before they pick up the crazy hitchhiker in remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Sorry, I know I'm mixing my horror-movie analogies here.
A sense of unease settles upon me when a conductor takes to the podium without the score. I interpret it as a statement for both the audience and the orchestra: I know this piece inside and out, I've led it too many times to discover anything new in it and I'm going to show you how it's done. The program may as well contain an insert which reads "what you hear tonight will contain nothing illuminating about the music being performed. Sorry- and thank you for supporting the arts."
Scheherazde is a beautiful monster of a piece- its opening is the classical equivalent of Led Zeppelin's most thunderous riffs and its solo violin parts are as soaring as those of the guitar in classic rock numbers like "Layla" or Prince's "Purple Rain." It's so melodic it's almost easy to dismiss it as a lightweight piece, and unfortunately on this night it was treated as one.
There stood Dutoit, sans hockey mask or a chainsaw, but nevertheless the sense of dread was suddenly palpable. Suddenly half the audience leans forward, obliterating the view of the other half seated behind them, thus causing even more movement, and then as the music begins with those huge, awesome and terrible swells, heads began swaying to the melody and suddenly I felt as if I'd been transported to a Celione Dion concert.
Still, for about two minutes it's perfect- the orchestra creates a surging wave of sound for the opening of "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship" and concertmaster Alexander Barantschik plays the first solo violin part with a fluid and delicate beauty.
Then Dutoit proceeds to slaughter the piece by leading it at a breakneck pace that removes all the blood, nuance, tension and melody from it. The soloists, especially the oboe, clarinet and piccolo seem to be doing everything they can just to keep up (and they are terrific despite the speed at which they are being led). The next two movements are so completely disheartening, so taken for granted, it was like attending a fundraiser for the culinary arts and being served a chicken breast with frozen vegetables. Even Barantschik seemed to lose all interest and he's the most serious and intensely devoted musician onstage. The entire orchestra just seemed to capitulate to Dutoit's "let's just get this over with" ethos for the remaining forty or so minutes. The final movement did manage to provide some brief moments of beauty in spite of the orchestra's (and the audience's) complete abuse.
The audience, one of the worst-behaved I have ever seen, of course gave it a tumultuous ovation. I left the hall feeling depressed.
Three nights later, I arrived early to get my ticket at the will call office and found Davies buzzing with the most diverse-looking audience I've ever seen there, all gathered to experience the West Coast debut of Phillip Glass' Music in Twelve Parts. Fie on San Francisco performances for completely mucking up the will call line and causing about a quarter of the audience to arrive late and shame on them for allowing latecomers to be seated in a steady, distracting stream throughout the first of the evening's four sections.
I thought I was going to be lucky since the seats next to me remained empty until the first imtermission, but then my good luck turned sour when an obese couple squished in next to me. Call me names if you like, but I hate feeling squashed and cramped in my seat because someone can't fit into theirs. Buy a box seat if you can't fit into a regular one- you have no right to a third of mine. To make matters worse, they smelled terrible. I actually had to go find another seat to prevent the rest of the evening from becoming an endurance test of nausea and resentment.
Oh yes, about the music.
Music in Twelve Parts, composed between 1971 and 1974, is normally performed over three evenings and represents a summation of Glass' technique and thoughts on composition at that point in his career. It is considered a highly influential landmark in 20th century music. This performance was the first time the work was to performed in its entirety on the West Coast, broken up into four hour-long movements of three parts each with an hour break for dinner. That's right- a five-hour long minimalist marathon.
But it was anything but minimalist. The Phillip Glass Ensemble is comprised of seven musicians- three with keyboards(including Glass), three who alternate between assorted winds and horns, and one amazing vocalist (Lisa Bielawa) whose stamina was beyond belief. Starting with a base melodic structure that appears deceptively simple on the surface, the musicians constantly develop it into new variations and directions until it gradually transforms into another melody entirely, one note change, one slight shift in tempo at a time. It requires constant attention to follow and it would take me too long to find the right analogy to aptly describe it. The result, however, is fascinating and compelling. The listener is drawn into the sound while trying to follow and identify everything going on within it- and there is a lot going on in this music of surprising depth.
Lisa Bielawa's vocals were an integral part of the whole, and for me, the anchor to the entire work. During the two or three sections she sat out to rest (well-deserved, I might add) the intensity of the sound was noticeably diminished for me and became less interesting. Others disagreed with me, so I'm willing to attribute this opinion to my interest in voice. I have to say that her performance was unlike anything I've ever witnessed- akin to singing the last act of Siegfried and then all of Tristan and Isolde in one concert. She was incredible.
For me, Twelve Parts was one part too long, as the final part lacked Bielawa's vocal and I could no longer follow the subtlety of the variations. I was just too full to have another serving.
It was an interesting, often mesmerizing, intense musical experience- the kind of rare opportunity we to get experience regularly simply because we live here in San Francisco.