Sunday, June 8, 2008

Intimations of Vulgarity

Vulgarity might seem an unlikely theme for a San Francisco Symphony concert; but, when the climax of the evening was the suite that Béla Bartók prepared from the score for his one-act pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin, the possibility is worth considering. As I previously mentioned, the work was banned after its first performance in Cologne, such was the offense that the church officials took to the scenario by Menyhért Lengyel. That previous post provided a brief sketch of the scenario taken from Halsey Stevens' The Life and Music of Béla Bartók. However, James Keller's notes for the Symphony program book included Bartók's own description of the plot, which is worth repeating:

Three [thugs] force a beautiful girl to lure men into their den so they can rob them. … The third [visitor] is a wealthy Chinese. He is a good catch, and the girl entertains him by dancing. The Mandarin's desire is aroused, he is inflamed by passion, but the girl shrinks from him in horror. The [thugs] attack him, rob him, smother him in a quilt, and stab him with a sword, but their violence is of no avail. They cannot kill the Mandarin, who continues to look at the girl with love and longing in his eyes. Finally feminine instinct helps: the girl satisfied the Mandarin's desire, and only then does he collapse and die.

I have seen this staged only once, back in the early days of the Opera Company of Boston, which is to say the let-it-all-hang-out days of the late sixties. In my brash youth I had expected more shock value. Today, however, I am more impressed by a narrative that draws its material from the gutter and escalates it to a mythical plane whose level is comparable to that of Das Rheingold (as I have already suggested).

Bartók's suite does not include the Mandarin's death scene, but it does not skimp on any of the sex and violence. The orchestral resources are as rich as those Igor Stravinsky had mustered for his Firebird suite. However, while Stravinsky concluded his suite with the spectacle of a coronation, Bartók brought his to the climax of desire, going out with a bang, so to speak. Under the baton of Assistant Conductor James Gaffigan, the Symphony perfectly rendered the fever pitch of the conclusion as the inevitable destination of all the acts of physical and sexual violence that had already been depicted. Vulgarity was definitely given its due, commanding our attention with a force that simply can never be achieved by Hollywood trivialities, such as those Quentin Tarantino projects over which film critics love to fawn.

The work obviously belonged at the end of the evening, since it was an impossible act to follow; but, as I suggested, it may have also served as a final statement on several perspectives of vulgarity. This seems to be the appropriate way to approach Francis Poulenc's Figure humaine cantata, based on eight poems by Paul Éluard, all directed towards the final poem, "Liberté." Without historical context one might take this to be a celebration of libertinism; but the work was composed during the summer of 1943, which is to say during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Thus, if one feels as if Éluard was reaching for the ugliest possible turns of phrase in the texts that he fashioned, it was probably because he was writing in response to the ugliness he saw every day when going out on the streets of Paris. These poems are a far cry from the explicit sex and violence on Lengyel's scenario, but they are just as focused as Lengyel was on life in a debased state. Éluard was probably taking just as many risks in his writing as Lengyel had done; but, as an active member of the Résistance, he had also probably accepted risk as an element of his day-to-day life.

One would think that such writing would arouse a passionate musical response, but Poulenc's cantata is relatively subdued. Like its predecessor, the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence completed in 1939, it is scored for unaccompanied chorus (divided, in this case, into two choirs). Also, like that earlier work, there is little diversity in the coloration of sounds, nor, for that matter, in either dynamics or tempo. This is not to say that either the earlier or later work is little more than featureless chant but just that the features under display received almost no highlighting. Initially I was both perplexed and provoked by this approach: Was Poulenc simply rewriting the penitential motets to new texts because he had run out of musical ideas? My second thoughts, however, recognized that the harshness of Éluard's texts would not necessarily have been served by equally harsh sounds. Taking Éluard's vulgar realities and rendering them in the same quiet setting as sacred penitential texts served to emphasize the underlying vulgarity, rather than conceal it. The impact is thus as disquieting as that of the Mandarin story, albeit in an entirely different way.

Needless to say, clarity of the text is critical to the performance of this work; and, once again, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus did not disappoint. Of course it helped to have the texts in the program book (along with English translation); but all phrasing and diction were directed towards letting the poems speak for themselves, which they did with all the profundity endowed upon them by their author. This was my first opportunity to hear the Chorus led by their director, Ragnar Bolin. I was well aware of his sensitivity to the need for such clarity and his physical techniques for bringing that clarity to every word and phrase as rendered through such a low-key musical strategy. Maintaining the quiet brevity of each of Poulenc's settings is as much a challenge as scaling the energy levels of Das Rheingold is across the street in the War Memorial Opera House, and Bolin rose to his challenge as effectively as Donald Runnicles has been doing with his.

I am not sure how Mark-Anthony Turnage would feel about viewing his Three Asteroids in terms of vulgarity, but it is hard to avoid associating his first movement, "The Torino Scale," with anything other than a Hollywood disaster movie, particularly since the "scale" was intended to measure the extent of damage likely to be caused by an asteroid colliding with the Earth. Still, Turnage's orchestration probably celebrates the percussion section far more skillfully than any soundtrack would do, although his decision to incorporate a klaxon seemed like a definite bow to Hollywood realism. The other two movements, "Juno" and "Ceres," were far less panic-stricken but no less modest in their orchestral (including percussion) resources. One might almost say that Turnage's take on these two asteroids was inspired by the slogan for the Godzilla remake: SIZE MATTERS! So, at the very least, Three Asteroids brings us into the world of Hollywood vulgarity, if not the more profound vulgarities of Éluard or Lengyel.

However, does size matter? To the San Francisco Symphony, conducted for this work by Benjamin Shwartz, the size of the decibel level definitely seemed to matter, since, from my vantage point, I could see several pairs of ears protected by ear plugs. Nevertheless, all those decibels that Turnage summoned in 2005 never seemed to rise to the level of intensity that Bartók had achieved with his 1919 suite, whose overall resources were not quite as overwhelming. This may have been a good demonstration of how the old dogs can sometimes do the better tricks.

The one portion of the program that was free of vulgarity was Alexander Barantschik's performance of Serge Prokofiev's first violin concerto. Composed in 1917, this is not the sort of "firebrand" music that the Symphony tried to celebrate about a year ago. It is more an intense display of virtuosity, often framed in the raucous turn-on-a-dime rhetoric that Prokofiev exercised particularly well in his collaborations with Sergei Eisenstein. However, if his work with Eisenstein imposed major constraints on how he managed his orchestral resources, this concerto allowed him to develop an orchestral palette of stunning transparency in support of the extensive variety of sonorities demanded from the solo instrument itself. This demands a sensitivity to acoustic balance that is far beyond the scope of the kinds of microphones that Eisenstein had to use and is probably just as much beyond the scope of even today's recording technology. This is a work that is best enjoyed in a live setting for both the richness of its sound and the suspense of the demands on the soloist for a real high-wire act. Since Barantschik is the Symphony's Concertmaster, he could enjoy a rapport with the entire ensemble that achieved that acoustic balance to the best possible effect, while his solo work leapt confidently through all the hoops that Prokofiev had composed. That rapport was further reinforced by James Gaffigan's conducting, and I was certainly glad to see that his approach to a Prokofiev violin concerto was as dazzling my memory of his approach to Sergei Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto.

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