Sunday, January 13, 2008

Continuing Interest in Samuel Barber

The high point of my opportunity to hear Deborah Voigt perform with the San Francisco Symphony finally came last night. While I had been looking forward to hearing how she and Michael Tilson Thomas would deliver a performance of Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs, the high point of her visit turned out to be another reminder that more attention needs to be paid to Samuel Barber. "Andromache's Farewell," written in 1963, finally received its first San Francisco Symphony performance. The date is situated between the two full-length operas that the Metropolitan Opera had commissioned, Vanessa (1958) and Antony and Cleopatra (1966), as well as after Barber's little nine-minute wonder, A Hand of Bridge. Conceived as a concert piece, "Andromache's Farewell" is basically a musical setting of a single scene from Euripides' The Trojan Women, set to an English translation by John Patrick Creagh, prepared at Barber's request.

This is a radical departure from the only other encounter that I know of that Barber had with Greek drama, Martha Graham's interpretation of Medea's betrayal by Jason and her subsequent act of revenge, first produced under the title "Serpent's Heart" but known today as "Cave of the Heart." Graham being Graham, this dance had almost nothing to do with Euripides, but provided an excellent example of the broad palette of sounds Barber could summon, even when working with the limited resources of a pit orchestra. Barber's score also became a target of scorn in the academic music world, primarily because of the boogie-woogie piano sound he conceived from Graham's solo of Medea plotting her revenge.

"Andromache's Farewell" has the luxury of far richer orchestral resources; but the academics of Barber's day probably continued to grumble over the "accessibility" of both his melodic lines and his harmonic colors. Nevertheless, The Trojan Women is probably one of the most gut-wrenching of all the plays in the Aeschylus/Sophocles/Euripides canon; and, when effectively produced, this particular scene can be one of the hardest to take. Here we have the wife of Hector (who, in the final days of the siege of Troy, was not only slain by Achilles but then had his body dragged in the dust around the walls of Troy for the entire population to see) now forced to give up her son to be put to death by the conquering Greeks (the logic being that, if the boy were allowed to live, he would grow up to seek revenge for the indignities visited on his father in both life and death). It is probably the most difficult part to play when the drama is staged, since Andromache is torn between the need to maintain her royal composure (such as it was, since all the "Trojan women" were fated to become slaves of the Greeks) and the implacable grief of not only losing the last person of value to her but also knowing the violent way in which he will die. So, if intellectuals want to complain that Barber's music is too heart-on-sleeve for their standards of twentieth-century music, the loss is theirs. Barber and Creagh knew exactly what this dramatic situation demanded and delivered with the full impact of their craft.

Both Thomas and Voigt seemed to understand what was at stake in performing this work; and they, too, "delivered with the full impact of their craft." The text takes Andromache through a broad spectrum of emotions that reflect her inner conflict, and Voigt drew upon a minimum of physical gesture and a maximum of vocal skill to allow us to bear witness to those emotions. Thomas managed those rich orchestral resources as surely as he has managed the equally rich resources of his Mahler performances, always supporting Voigt and only dominating during the musical intervals between the individual episodes of the scene. Voigt's biography in the program indicated that she and Thomas will be taking this performance to Carnegie Hall in March, where, I hope, the work will be received as warmly as it was last night.

It is hard to imagine "Andromache's Farewell" being paired with a work of greater contrast than those Four Last Songs. Even Mozart showed some of his finest work when cutting to the bone of Greek tragedy; and, whatever their virtues may be, Hermann Hesse and Josef von Eichendorff are just not in the same league as Euripides. Furthermore, for all the joy I take in Strauss' command of those rich orchestral resources, I would be so bold as to suggest that the heart-on-sleeve accusation probably fits the Four Last Songs much better than it fits "Andromache's Farewell." This is not to deny that the Strauss mini-cycle does not have some really effective moments; but there was at least one orchestral coda (for "September") that landed with what almost felt like a heavy-handed jolt. I have to wonder whether or not the entire performance might have suffered from having to share rehearsal time with "Andromache's Farewell." The final scene from Salome (which Voigt had performed on the Symphony's European tour last summer) would probably have made a better companion piece; but it is hard to imagine even the strongest soprano being able to deliver full-out on that pairing, even with the benefit of an intermission between them!

The orchestral side of the program was represented by beginning with Oliver Knussen's third symphony and ending with Beethoven's fourth. While the Knussen symphony was dedicated to Thomas, who conducted its first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1979, this was its first performance by the San Francisco Symphony. That is probably one of only two attributes it shares with "Andromache's Farewell," the other being (once again) those rich orchestral resources. While Thomas May's program notes describe Knussen's music as tending "toward a kind of concentrated brevity, expressed through his exquisitely crafted sound world," I have to say that, while this symphony may have been shorter than "Andromache's Farewell," it felt about twice as long. The reason I suspect is that it comes across as all "exquisitely crafted sound," best appreciated by watching the way the center of activity migrates around the orchestra's stage area without ever really establishing a rhetorical compass that leads the ear from one sound to the next.

This is not to dismiss the compositional impact of "exquisitely crafted sound," since that is an attribute that sustained both Strauss and Barber. It is only to raise the question of what is expected of the listener. Last season, when Osmo Vänskä conducted Kalevi Aho's Louhi, I found myself confronted with a similar listening question. My former colleague, who had joined me at that performance, asked if I had really gotten anything out of it; and my honest reply was, "I don't know; all I do know is that I would like to hear it again." I find that I do not feel as generous towards Knussen's third symphony, and it may be for no reason other than Aho having a sense of brevity that was more consistent with my listening habits.

Finally, it is regrettable that the San Francisco Chronicle did not seem to have any column space left over for Beethoven's fourth symphony. Regular readers know that I particularly enjoy the works where Beethoven lets down his guard and displays his wit. Given that the fourth symphony sits between the "Napoleonic" third and the "fate-laden" fifth, it is not the first place where one might seek such wit. On the other hand the "Eroica" must have taken a lot out of the guy, so he probably needed an opportunity to hang loose. (This was the "excuse" John Adams once gave for the gag-heavy "Grand Pianola Music," which was composed in the wake of a far more serious project.) Beethoven's wit is primarily displayed through sharp dynamic contrasts; and, working with a reduced orchestra, Thomas homed in in just the right way to play this without overplaying it. Those contrasts are at their most extreme in the final movement, which, in another world, probably could have served as the soundtrack for a "Roadrunner" cartoon (and Anthony Tommasini, of The New York Times, thought Prokofiev wrote "Looney Tunes" music)! I also have to confess that, since I know Beethoven did some settings of English and Irish folk songs, I have always wondered if the trio of the third movement was deliberately composed to scan the text of an old English drinking song, usually sung as a round composed by John Blow:

'Tis Women makes us Love,
'Tis Love that makes us sad,
'Tis sadness makes us Drink,
And Drinking makes us Mad.

Admittedly, this seems to have more to do with The Rake's Progress than with any Beethoven symphony; but, for my money, Beethoven had a better sense of humor than Stravinsky!

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