Friday, October 26, 2018

Mӑcelaru Brings New and Old Selections to SFS

Conductor Cristian Mӑcelaru (photograph by Sorin Popa, courtesy of SFS)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Romanian conductor Cristian Mӑcelaru made his debut on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Each half of the program began with a debut selection followed by a work from that transitional period from the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth. Of the two new works, the more significant was the world premiere of Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night Elegy,” an orchestral reflection on Puts’ full-length opera Silent Night, performed after the program’s intermission. The opening selection was Anna Clyne’s “Masquerade,” completed in 2013 and being performed by SFS for the first time. The soloist for the evening was violinist Ray Chen, playing Édouard Lalo’s Opus 21 “Symphonie espagnole;” and the program concluded with another orchestral reflection on opera, this time a suite of music from Richard Strauss’ Opus 59 Der Rosenkavalier.

The opera Silent Night, which has, to date, been performed by at least ten opera companies, is an account of the 1914 Christmas truce, a spontaneous interruption of the wholesale massacre of human life across Europe between July of 1914 and November  of 1918 known as World War I. This episode had been documented in Christian Carion’s 2005 film Joyeux Noël; and in 2008 Dale Johnson, Artistic Director of the Minnesota Opera, offered to commission Puts to create an opera based on the film’s narrative. The subsequent orchestra elegy consists of a single movement that distills the opera’s narrative into five episodes:
  1. Introduction
  2. The Battle
  3. Aftermath and Burial
  4. The Generals’ Rage
  5. Sleep
Having missed the opportunity to see the Opera San José production of Silent Night, the elegy provided my “first contact” with the score. The instrumentation was rich (possibly richer than could be accommodated by an orchestra pit in an opera house), supplemented by a generous supply of percussion instruments. Nevertheless, for the most part, Puts’ score uses the music for reflection, rather than representation. Those reflections were sufficiently straightforward that the attentive listener could follow the episode titles without difficulty. Nevertheless, to the extent that the elegy amounts to a distillation of the entire narrative, it was hard to avoid thinking that at least some of the episodes (particularly the final one) kept going long after their points had been established. This may well have been a problem with Puts thinking in “opera time” when his “inner clock” should have been on “tone poem time.”

On the other hand no fault could be found in the timing of “Masquerade.” Clyne was commissioned to compose music for the 2013 installment of Last Night of the Proms. The whole Proms series is one in which serious music comes face to face with party-like revelry; but the season always wraps up with the revelry going over the top on, as BBC announcers like to put it, “the night that the circus leaves town.” Appropriate to the occasion, Clyne cooked up what amounted to a five-minute roller coaster ride that deploys a wide palette of sonorities deployed at a breakneck pace.

Every gesture was saturated with good humor. During the first section I kept hearing my composition teacher’s persistent warnings against “slimy chromaticism.” Clyne’s chromatic passages were as slimy as you could get. It was abundantly clear that she loved every one of them and wanted us to do the same. Several tunes were cited, most of them probably more familiar to a Proms audience than to listeners on this side of the pond. Since this was Mӑcelaru’s opening gesture of the evening, he knew he had to get his audience’s attention; and Clyne’s music could not have been more appropriate for the task.

Having established a presence, so to speak, the stage was then prepared for the entrance of violin soloist Chen. Lalo’s Opus 21 is a flamboyant piece, and Chen has never been afraid of being flamboyant. The symphony is in five movements, and the vigorously energetic tempo markings do not let up until the Andante of the fourth movement. Nevertheless, Chen was never short of energy; and his dexterity in managing the many virtuoso passages in the score never failed him.

However, Chen’s skills also included prevailing over Mӑcelaru’s dynamics, which, with only a few rare exceptions, seemed to be limited to the range between forte and fortissimo. Indeed, Mӑcelaru demanded so much of timpanist Edward Stephan that the opening statement of the first theme was practically inaudible. As the performance progressed, Mӑcelaru persisted in cranking his amplifier up to eleven; and Chen probably should have been awarded a Purple Heart for not only surviving those dynamics but also reminding the audience that this was concertante music for a solo violin.

Chen then took an encore (meaning he no longer had to worry about competing with Mӑcelaru’s dynamics). He chose to play the opening movement from the second of the six sonatas for solo violin that Eugène Ysaÿe published as his Opus 27. Ysaÿe gave that movement the title “Obsession;” and it involves a battle (of sorts) between the opening measures of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1006 solo violin partita in E major and the original plainchant version of the “Dies irae” sequence. Chen was as fearless in his approach to Ysaÿe as he had been in meeting all of Lalo’s challenging passages, and one could even appreciate the sly wit that Ysaÿe brought to this reflection on music of the past.

Fortunately, Mӑcelaru’s approach to the suite of Rosenkavalier music was not quite so extreme. As the program book observed, it is not known who compiled this suite. It was first performed on October 5, 1944 (the opera had been completed in 1910) by Artur Rodziński conducting the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (now the New York Philharmonic). The program book suggests that Rodziński “probably had a hand in the arrangement,” possibly aided by his assistant, Leonard Bernstein.

The music itself tends to go down best with those who know and love both the music and the narrative of the opera. It revives memories of many of the great scenes including the “roll in the hay” taking place before the curtain rises, the show-stopping “Presentation of the Rose,” Baron Ochs’ fatuous “Ohne mich” waltz, and the heartbreaking beauty of the trio that resolves the entire plot. Those less familiar with the opera probably find the suite more opaque and some of the episodes unnecessarily long. Strauss himself compiled two shorter suites of waltz music in 1911 and 1944, respectively. The earlier of these excepted music from the third act, while the later drew upon the first two acts. My own opinion is that both of these work their magic far more effectively for those unfamiliar with the overall plot. Nevertheless, Mӑcelaru endowed the score he was using with well-considered pacing, bringing a joyous conclusion to a program that was, for the most part, highly festive.

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