The title of this week’s concert by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) at Davies Symphony Hall, which received its first performance last night, is Music for a Modern Age. It is unclear just what that meant, since the music on the program spanned an entire century, from 1906 (Charles Ives’ “From the Steeples and the Mountains”) to 2016, the West Coast premiere of the setting by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Four Preludes on Playthings of the World.” Furthermore, to add to the confusion over just what, if anything, the overall theme was, this was one of those evenings dominated by projection screens, stage directors, and choreography. Those who came to listen to the music quickly found themselves in the center of a massive battle for attention.
Regardless of any of the intentions behind the overall programming, the winner of that battle would have to be director and choreographer Patricia Birch. Her life span may not be as wide as last night’s repertoire (her Wikipedia page does not give her date of birth); but she was in the original production of West Side Story. By 1975 her resume included choreography for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Grease, and A Little Night Music. A high point of her past work with MTT and SFS was the full-evening show The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theatre.
Last night she closed out the evening with a staging of George Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony,” which she developed with MTT. This was the major composition on a recent recording discussed on this site this past Thursday. It would be fair to say that Antheil’s music was neither jazz nor a symphony; but it may be the most musical reflection on that cultural milieu known as “The Jazz Age” conceived by a composer. Birch cooked up a series of dynamite dance routines focused on a pair of flappers (Kiva Dawson and Erin Moore); and both music and dance were embedded in some highly imaginative video work by Clyde Scott.
Since Birch was experienced in working with the Davies stage, she knew how she could use the space to best advantage. However, where theatre directors often achieve their most striking results when they break down that “fourth wall” (separating the audience from the stage), Birch used the raucous qualities of Antheil’s music as inspiration to break down the wall around the musicians. Thus we had Dawson flirting with solo pianist Peter Dugan (sometimes in ways making one wonder how he was still able to execute all of Antheil’s demands):
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony
More impressive was how Moore took the four players at the rear of the first violin section and turned them into her “supporting chorus,” teaching them their moves and then parading them to different areas of the stage. (The empty chairs were quickly replaced by four other violinists. Antheil’s piece requires a very large ensemble; and the first violin section needed to maintain its balance.)
The whole affair was a delightfully memorable hoot, unless you were there to listen to Antheil’s music. As was discussed earlier this week, there is no shortage of wit in the composer’s score. Some of it was quickly apparent, particularly in some of Dugan’s solo work (before he became distracted). However, there are no end of playful devils in the details of this music; and there were just too many demands on attention to give those devils the due they deserved.
Indeed, there were not many opportunities for focus on the pleasures afforded by just listening. The opening Ives selections fared best of all. As in the past, MTT arranged a spatial approach to the performance of “The Unanswered Question.” The strings were stationed in the inner lobby for Orchestra seating, while Mark Inouye took the trumpet solo from the right arm of the uppermost tier. The effect could not have been more stirring; but it was definitely equalled by the four “church-bell” (actually metal plates) players in the terrace during “From the Steeples and the Mountains.” Ives never heard this music performed; but the give-and-take between the bells and a brass choir summoned up all of those concepts of God and Nature that made such a deep impression on the Concord philosophers that the composer so admired.
Similarly, the performance of four of the movements from the suite for violin and American Gamelan composed collaboratively by Lou Harrison and Richard Dee placed priority on the listener. (The “inner suite” of three “Jhala” movements was omitted.) Nadya Tichman performed the violin solo with all of the melodic lyricism that both composers evoked in their score. Sadly, the American Gamelan was not the Old GrandDad collection of instrument designed and constructed by Harrison and his partner William Colvig. Those were the instruments used when the suite was performed in its entirety as part of the Other Minds 22 festival. Last night they were replaced by a more uniform collection of metallophones whose pitches were based on Harrison’s approach to just intonation.
Unfortunately, this made for more uniformity in the accompaniment than had been experienced at Other Minds. Each of the OldGrandDad instruments was made as its own individual piece of work. When a collection of them were assembled, one could appreciate not only the sound of the group but also the contributions of the individual instruments. Last night the only differences one could detect in the accompaniment had to do with register. The resulting disadvantage was that interleaving lines in a single register tended to get muddled, meaning that the listener was less aware of the Javanese spirit that had inspired the score.
However, muddle was a far greater problem with MTT’s composition. There is a discursive prose-like quality to Sandburg’s text that tends to demand a delivery closer to conversation than singing. Michael Hovland’s entry for Grove Music Online offers a moderate list of composers and their settings, but chances are that none of these will be recognized by most readers. (Hovland’s article comes from the second edition of The Grove Dictionary of American Music.) Even with MTT reading the text before the performance and with soprano Measha Brueggergosman singing into a head-mounted microphone, there was no opportunity to get any sense of the relationship between words and music. Perhaps it was just as well that the listener was besieged with five screens of video and a pair of “backup” vocalists (soprano Mikaela Bennett and mezzo Kara Dugan) suggesting that the whole thing was a Supremes act that never made it off the drawing board. (The staging by James Darrah did not make it off the drawing board either.)
The result was an evening of sharply changing variations, but credit must go to Birch for guaranteeing that things ended on a high note.