Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, composed in 1911, has few champions, but count the San Francisco Symphony's Michael Tilson Thomas among them. He conducted the first performances of it here in 1995 and is presenting a new, semi-staged version of it this weekend. Containing elements found in a symphony, opera, ballet, oratorio choral work, it's an odd assemblage originally designed to be a popular piece, but it never achieved that goal.
The version presented by the Symphony and director and designer Anne Patterson is an alluring 70-minute pageant of beautiful music enhanced by accompanying projected and live visuals- a strange thing to describe and it's something of a modern masque, though that description doesn't quite capture its essence. The program notes by Michael Steinberg point out that this is the most Wagnerian music Debussy ever wrote, and one can certainly hear that, but the French composer's stamp is all over it- there are moments in the score of gorgeous Impressionism- cascading water, cerulean skies, Tristan chord-like yearnings of desire, all played with exceptional precision by the immense orchestra, whose brass section was exhibiting new heights of clarity and force throughout the evening.
Also on hand to make the whole thing work was a small troupe of excellent singers and performers- Frederica von Stade narrated the Saint's lines, and although she was miked and not singing, her voice possessed force and she performed the part with moving and graceful conviction. Sopranos Karina Gauvin and Joanna Taber, along with mezzos Leah Wool and Sasha Cooke, handled the singing roles and sounded lovely, though I have to admit the sumptuousness of the music, combined with the arresting visual projections and lighting designed by Adam Larsen and Matthew Frey, frequently found me paying less attention to the singers than I would ordinarily. The staging often featured images of the mercurial Ida Rubinstein, who as the original ballet dancer for Le Martyre had a large part in the piece's origination. For this production the dancer was San Francisco Ballet's Damian Smith, whose performance of choreographer Myles Thatcher's moves was projected on multiple screens, often in slow motion and still images- again, the only word to describe this was gorgeous- and at times surprisingly poignant.
MTT led a superb performance of the orchestra through the work's five movements, with each of the "mansions" building on its predecessor. It does seem a bit long toward the end, but the final movement (Paradise) unfolds to a reverent finale.
The first half of the concert featured Janacek's Sinfionetta- a twenty-minute militaristic blast featuring a bevy of brass on the stage and scattered in three trios on the terrace seats. The opening flurry lacks the subtlety typically found in Janacek's works but as the piece continues the themes clearly emerge in wondrous developments. The work features all of the gorgeous rhythmic vitality found in the composer's better-known pieces, like The Cunning Little Vixen, especially in the final allegro. Certainly these performances are another highlight of the Centennial Season.