Avner Dorman's Uriah premieres at SF Symphony

In general I like to write about my thoughts on a performance as soon as I can, with the lofty and extremely vain hope that someone sitting on the fence about attending something will actually read this and be nudged in one direction or the other toward actually making a decision to see it for themselves (or not). Sometimes I see something too late in a run for that to happen, at other times the constraints of the real world take a toll and I fall behind. I'm a bit behind right now and this post is going to hit too late to be of any influence in that regard (at least locally). It's a damn shame to be sure, but sometimes I need to sleep and attend to other things.

So, forging right ahead I'm going to give my take on Wednesday's concert by the San Francisco Symphony which has only one more performance and since it starts in about an hour I think those who are going to attend it are already well on their way. Usually there would also be a Saturday night performance, but this week features a special event, the Chinese New Year Concert and Celebration. So be it. There you have it. Being a laggard this time around gave me the opportunity to read what others thought about the show, something I usually avoid because I don't want their opinions and reactions to influence my own, though I do like to compare notes after the fact. That's half the fun of this endeavor. Okay, maybe a third of the fun. Anyway, apparently I'm in the minority on this one because the SFS just gave the world premiere of Avner Dorman's new work called Uriah: The Man The King Wanted Dead and it seems few were moved by it.

Dorman is pretty hot right now, having eight world premieres unfurling around the world this year, and this was my first live experience of his music. Uriah is essentially a fifteen minute tone poem based on the biblical character and his story, but here used metaphorically for contemporary politicians who willingly send soldiers (and others) out to die for their own selfish reasons. I suspect George W. Bush and a few others will probably receive a personally autographed CD from the composer if it's ever recorded.

Dorman was on hand to explain the story of what we were about to hear. In five connected sections, he shows us God's wrath as Bathsheba's child dies in an Andantino Indignato movement, followed by Uriah's preparation/acceptance of being sent out to battle to meet his sure death in Lento in the Desert, then we get the battle itself in Presto barbaro, his death in The Song of Angels, and a conclusion labeled Epilogue, where Dorman's disapproving voice of these events is expressed through the music.

On the one hand all of this sounds incredibly pompous and yet on the other I admire the composer's balls for being willing to make his voice heard in such an overtly political piece. Perhaps this affinity made me more susceptible to the music's narrative than others, but I found it to be poignant and effective, especially the loud, percussive crashes when Uriah is killed and during the low bass notes and angry tuba signifying Dorman's disapproval during the Epilogue. In fact, I found them to be almost as moving as the huge double stomping chords Wagner uses to signify the loss of the hero in Siegfried's funeral march during Gotterdammerung. In other words, I really enjoyed the work and would welcome the opportunity to experience it again.

There was more of course- two Prokofiev pieces and Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, known to almost everyone via Disney's Fantasia. I have a difficult time listening to something like The Sorcerer's Apprentice and disassociating from my mind how it's been used in ways that have become so culturally prevalent, i.e. Fantasia, so the glories of this heard by others were largely lost on me. Unlike Ravel's Bolero and the constant abuse of so many of Beethoven's works, I can't disabuse myself from the mental association of  Mickey Mouse and the The Sorcerer's Apprentice, though I can now listen to Bolero and not immediately think of a corn-rowed Bo Derek emerging from the Pacific Ocean. Actually, Bolero now makes me think of Brian DePalma's under-recognized masterpiece of Hitchcockian trash, Femme Fatale, but that's another post and I suppose that's some sort of weird middle-aged male testosterone-driven response on my part. And that too, is another post. So in essence, the Apprentice didn't do much for me.

The Prokofiev pieces are a different story. I love the "Classical Symphony." It's a perfect work, virtually bullet-proof, and guest conductor David Robertson led the orchestra through an exquisite account of it on every level. The Violin Concerto featured soloist Leonidas Kavakos, sporting perhaps the shaggiest fashion sense I've ever seen on a contemporary classical musician. It was uneven, but still held pleasures and Kavakos received a very warm reception from the musicians onstage.

Finally, I admired the somewhat odd programming of the evening- none of the pieces presented seemed to have anything to say about the others nor invited avenues for comparison. Kind of a classical jukebox approach. After the show, Cecelia Bartoli's ex-neighbor and I went for a drink and gossiped about the neighbors, including the crazy stalker who lives in our building.