Rufus sings Shakespeare and other oddities

There is  a truly odd and unusual program unfurling itself over the weekend at Davies Symphony Hall this weekend and if you have a chance to catch the last night on Saturday (though it may be sold out) this head scratcher works at every turn and ought not to be missed.

First of all, these performances were to be conducted by Jeffrey Kahane and were suppose to feature Kahane conducting the orchestra from the piano bench in Ravel's Piano Concerto  No. 2, the delayed world premiere of Rufus Wainwright's Five Sonnets and Weill's 2nd Symphony (in the first SFS performances). Exit Kahane for reasons I don't recall and the Ravel disappears, to be replaced by Darius Milhaud's La Creation Du Monde, led by super stand-in Michael Francis, who's made a name for himself world-wide by stepping in at the last moment to conduct world premieres and knocking them out of the park. Yes, it's weird already and we haven't even heard a note of music!

Milhaud was one of Les Six, who wonderfully documented in Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise. The Six were interested mainly in two things- upsetting the status quo of "Western Art Music" and jazz. Listening to what Milhaud and the program notes call his most successful score, written after a visit to the U.S. in 1922, I wanted to know where and when Milhaud and Gershwin sat down together to smoke some opium, for La Creation Du Monde contains so many elements found in Rhapsody in Blue the first thing I did was look up which one is credited with coming first. For the record, Milhaud beat Gershwin by a year, though he never quite grasped Gershwin's mastery of rhythm. Still, the piece is a fascinating intersection of jazz and classical music which has interest beyond being a museum piece. If you want to hear how classically-oriented composers confronted and incorporated jazz into classical music, Rhapsody is the place to start- and La Creation Du Monde is the place to go next. SFS heavy hitters looked like they were having a ball- Carey Bell on clarinet, William Bennett on oboe, Mark Inouye on trumpet and Robin Sutherland on the piano were obviously having a great time with this one. On opening night these same musicians turned the SFS into the world's greatest jazz band while accompanying Jessye Norman. After tonight, I think it would be a great idea if SFS starts a festival dedicated to large-ensemble jazz concerts. The talent is obviously there, as is the enthusiasm- so let's just do this, okay? It would be a great way to end the season or would be a terrific alternative during the holiday season for those of us who can't stomach The Messiah (there- I said it).

Next up was a genuine star turn if there ever was one in this hall. Rufus Wainwright left SFS in the lurch last year after they commissioned him to set some Shakespeare sonnets to music and perform them. Rufus was too busy writing an opera at the time to finish the project when it was due, so he bailed and left SFS to program Spring Awakening's composer Duncan Sheik in his absence and the result was that one could hurl a brick through the orchestra section of Davies and not injure a single soul during those concerts. Then Wainwright's mother died and the entire project became iffy, only to show up again on this year's schedule- and now drawing a full house. Rufus walked onstage looking like Elton John with taste- fancy slacks, awesome shoes and a boutonniere to die for. The only downside was the microphone. Damn. Well, that and the fact that some of the words were not clearly articulated- following them in the program helped greatly.

Setting Shake's sonnets 43, 20, 10, 129 and 87 to his own music done as a complete song cycle, Wainwright gave a thrilling performance for three of the five. 10 was a bit schmaltzy for me and 129 was nondescript, but the remaining three, especially when he sang "And so my patent back again is swerving" during 87, accompanied by music that circled back upon itself, was musical perfection. Not only should this cycle be recorded, I hope Wainwright sets more of Shake's sonnets to music. You will remember these songs. You will fall in love with what Wainwright has done with them. Give us more, Rufus. Please.

After intermission we were treated to another curiosity, Kurt Weill's Symphony No. 2 (1934), getting its first run at SFS. The score is completely accessible, in many spots sounding like film music, but everything in this three movement curiosity is repeated ad nauseum, making it easy to follow but ultimatelyey bordering the boring in a way, though the ideas contain the undeniable, catchy brilliance that Weill was so adept at. Here Francis showed why he is making a name for himself, succeeding in keeping the repetitive from becoming boring. It really is a difficult work for the orchestra to perform- this is not an easy score, especially for strings, yet Francis kept it all together, making a case for a work that in lesser hands may not have been evident.

After the performance Wainwright and Francis sat down with a local DJ from our psuedo-classical station for a 1/2 hour chat with the audience which was noteworthy on a couple of levels. First, these events usually attract less than 100 people- this one had the entire orchestra section of the hall completely full. Wainwright let loose with an amusing malapropism when he claimed "the sonnets will never get in the way of my music" and Francis revealed himself to be a thoughtful, engaged (if verbose) collaborator. Let's hope both of these artists return to this stage soon.