For last night’s Summer with the Symphony program presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), Director of Summer Concerts Edwin Outwater prepared and conducted a program that flourished with a wide diversity of imaginative approaches to instrumentation. The major work on this relatively brief offering was Gustav Holst’s Opus 32 suite The Planets, in which each of the seven planets (other than Earth) was characterized not only thematically but also through its own unique approach to orchestral sonorities. The planets themselves were preceded by two short pieces devoted to the moon, the “Song to the Moon” aria from Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 114 opera Rusalka, sung by soprano Julie Adams, and André Caplet’s orchestration of the “Clair de lune” movement from Claude Debussy’s piano collection Suite bergamasque. The “overture” for the program departed from the heavens with John Adams’ down-to-earth fanfare “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”
Holst was one of those British musicians with prolific output and scrupulous discipline. He was content to focus his attention on education and practice and was not prepared for the “smash hit” status of The Planets. If anything, he seemed to regret fame interfering with the day-to-day music activities that he cherished. The fact is that this suite has more than its share of razzle-dazzle effects; and Holst was so focused on pulling so many rabbits out of one hat that larger questions of architecture, both in each movement and over the entire suite, seem to have been neglected.
Nevertheless, it is music in which just about every instrument has an opportunity to display its virtues; and Holst managed to embody all of those virtues in a programmatic framework that appealed to popular, rather than merely academic, attention. I had never really appreciated how much detail had gone into this score until I had an opportunity to listen to it being prepared at an open rehearsal at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. As a result of that experience, I find myself aware of new aspects of the score’s many details each time I have an opportunity to listen to the piece in concert (which is not often). Last night it was clear that Outwater, too, was aware of those details and responded with assiduous care in making sure that every one of them was brought to audience attention. If Holst had the shortcoming of repeating himself too many times, Outwater responded by finding the most appropriate pace for each movement, duly dismissing just about every possible opportunity for tedium to rear its head.
Just as impressive was the amount of attention Outwater devoted to Caplet’s orchestration of Debussy. Caplet was a close friend of Debussy’s and clearly had a deep understanding of Debussy’s own compositions. However, it is important to note that, while Caplet probably understood the details of Debussy’s instrumentation techniques as well as Debussy did, he judiciously made sure that his setting of “Clair de lune” departed from just about all of those instrumentation techniques. Instead, Caplet chose his own palette of sonorities, which he felt would best suit Debussy’s thematic material; and the result almost amounts to an original composition in its own right. Under Outwater’s baton SFS revealed the full breadth of Caplet’s imagination, offering a listening experience with as much to discover as any of Holst’s suite movements.
The “Song to the Moon” may well be Dvořák’s most compelling piece of solo vocal work. It has a folk-like simplicity on the surface. However, beneath that surface one encounters the complexity of conflicting emotions from which the best fairy tales emerge. As Patricia Racette once observed in a master class, singing in Czech is no easy matter. However, those who know Julie Adams through her work with the San Francisco Opera know that one of her past efforts was the role of the ingenue Kristina in Leoš Janáček’s opera The Makropulos Affair. This translated into a solid command of the text from Dvořák’s libretto and a delivery of this poignant song that went straight to the heart.
As was already mentioned, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” was the down-to-earth introduction to all the cosmic ventures that would follow. This, again, is music in which every note plays a critical role in one detail or another. Most fascinating is how John Adams managed to take gestures that have at least a vague sense of familiarity and warp them with slightly off-beat rhythmic patterns, often superposing several of those patterns.
All too often this music is played for the splashy effects of its surface structure. Outwater, on the other hand, clearly understood all of those rich details lying beneath the surface. However familiar this music may have been to many of the audience, last night’s performance disclosed so much that those who thought they knew the piece probably found it a journey of new discoveries.