Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) wrapped up its eleventh season with a performance of Hector Berlioz’ Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique” (fantastical symphony), which was given the subtitle (translated into English) “An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts.” The episode is that of the frustrations of Berlioz’ own unrequited love for the Irish Shakespearian actress Harriett Smithson. The protagonist in the symphony has poisoned himself with opium; and there are reasons to believe that Berlioz himself took opium, possibly after having read Thomas De Quincey’s autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
There is a tendency to let one’s imagination run wild over the “fantastical” visions that unfold over the course of the symphony’s five movements, which include death by guillotine, after which the soul is transported to a celebration of a Witches’ Sabbath. Nevertheless, considerable discipline was required to provide a coherent account of the bizarre fantasies of an opium-warped mind; and Opus 14, whose 200th anniversary is gradually coming into view, remains a model example of how much technical discipline is required to establish expressiveness at its most bizarre. It is not so much a matter of the Devil being in the details as it is one of having to master no end of technical details to invoke a convincing sense of that Devil.
It is therefore a pleasure to observe that last night, under the baton of Music Director Dawn Harms, BARS provided an account of Opus 14 that was as sensitive to detail as it was to the full spectrum of its “fantastical” expressiveness. I have to say personally that, in spite of the large number of encounters I have experienced with this music, both in performance and on recording, last night’s approaches of execution kept me on the edge of my seat, always knowing what was coming and still thoroughly wrapped up in how Harms evoked both the broad strokes and the subtleties of the music’s capacity for signification. As might be expected, there were occasional imperfections; but there was no arguing with compelling dramatic qualities of the whole cloth.
Indeed, those qualities were so enduring that they almost entirely obscured the shortcomings of the first half of the program. Assistant Conductor Kyle Baldwin began the evening with a performance of the prelude that Swedish composer Elfrida Andrée wrote for her 1899 opera Fritofs saga. This was an instance of broad-stroked expressiveness that never quite congealed into a structure as solid as a composer like Berlioz could develop. One might even call it a victory of style over substance that would pervade the remainder of the first half of the program.
That remainder was devoted entirely to the music of Los Angeles composer Shawn Kirchner. The first offering was Meet Me on the Mountain Suite, a cycle of five songs inspired by the movie Brokeback Mountain. Kirchner himself played piano, often singing an accompanying melodic line. The songs themselves featured performances by tenor Ryan Harrison and soprano Ann Moss.
It is easy to appreciate the urge to create musical reflections on the Brokeback Mountain narrative that went deeper than a movie soundtrack, particularly in a setting of “musical offerings” for the LGBTQ community. Sadly, however, depth was not Kirchner’s strong suit; and his music never rose above the bland familiarity of what passes for popular song these days. Thus, whatever their vocal skills may have been with other repertoire, neither Harrison nor Moss could muster accounts that were particularly expressive, let alone convincing. Instead, all of the performances seemed to have been inspired by little more than the absurd stylistic tics that seem to appeal to American Idol judges. Kirchner then played the piano part with BARS in a performance of his “Heavenly Home” settings of three American folk songs, which turned out to be just as unconvincing as his vocal writing.
The irony is that the evening concluded with a delightful reminder of how much more substance one encounters from earlier generations than seems to be mined from the present. A surprise encore was given by Jamie Barton, currently in San Francisco to sing the role of the witch Ježibaba in Antonín Dvořák’s opera Rusalka, which will open a week from this afternoon on June 16. Distancing herself as far as possible from this sinister part, Barton saluted BARS by name by singing Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.” This turned out of be an encouraging reminder of how one can find substance in past contributions to the American Songbook; and the style that Barton brought to her execution, eschewing all of those “stylistic tics,” could not have been more compelling.