|Lola Montez- an uncanny resemblance to someone I know.|
I really don't remember how it was initially described in the press conference which took place more than a year ago, but the impression I got was that the "The Barbary Coast and Beyond" was going to be an exuberant extravaganza along the lines of "The Thomashefskys" (to this day one of the most delightful performances I've ever seen). It actually sounded even more promising given the subject- the musical history of San Francisco from the Gold Rush of 1849 through Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, and coupled with the huge plans the San Francisco Symphony was making to celebrate its Centennial, this seemed like it would be a highlight of the season, perhaps the crown jewel in a season that has actually far-exceeded expectations. So it's with a tinge of regret I write that while the show was certainly entertaining I found its potential went largely unfulfilled.
To go back to "The Thomashefskys" for a moment (which you can see on PBS or on DVD), one of the elements that made that production so successful was Tilson Thomas himself, who was not only the ringleader, but also its most surprising performer. It made me, along with many others I've spoken with since, see MTT in a different light- who knew the guy could loosen up so much and be so endearing and funny? Glimpses come through occasionally, like when he does his impression of Morton Feldman, but for the most part "The Thomashefskys" exposed a side of MTT the audience rarely gets a chance to see and I was hoping to see more of that last night, but there were only glimpses.
The ringleader role was turned over to Beach Blanket Babylon's Val Diamond, who did a good job with it, but her persona wasn't large enough to make the evening feel like an event, nor was the presence of some pretty high caliber guests- Laura Claycomb, Vadim Gluzman, Anton Nels, Cameron Carpenter, and the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West. When a woman (Caroline McCaskey) playing a saw threatens to steal the show from the likes of these performers, something has gone awry.
Some of that was the show's narrative structure, which favored chronological order without creating a sense of significance or relevance. For the most part, the numbers went by one at a time, without much backstory given for why they were being performed beyond the anecdotal or biographical. This, coupled with the fact that the theatrical promise of such a show went unrealized, and the "multimedia" elements were little more than a slow series of still images shown on a screen above the performers, led to some pretty long stretches- Jack Van Geem's marimba solo among them.
However there were some delights- especially the stories and images about Lola Montez and Adah Menken, if not the music that accompanied them. Carpenter performed an acid-drenched version of "Star and Stripes Forever" on the organ, mostly with his feet, and Gluzman was exceptional, even with material that grew wearisome. And the choice of material was problematic- there's a reason audiences haven't heard much of this music performed in a very long time- it's simply not very good. The orchestra itself, which played well throughout, seemed to only hit its stride during a movement from the Tchaikovsky 4th. The sing-along at the end brightened things up a bit, creating an air of exuberance in the hall that was missing for most of the two and a half hour performance.