San Francisco Symphony is evidently going to be presenting a music/theater mix of some kind on an annual basis, given what's in the program notes for this week's Peer Gynt. They should think twice, or be extremely careful about which works they perform. Last year's Le martyr de Saint Sebastien was a brilliant success, because of the beauty and coherence of Debussy's score, the great vocal and choral work, and the suitably mysterious presentation.
This year's Peer Gynt? Not so much. I nearly walked out after five minutes.
Like the complete Martyr, Ibsen's play is long, long, long (about the length of Goetterdaemmerung). It's not performed often in the United States, though evidently ACT mounted a production in the 1970s some time, and is best known here through Edvard Grieg's two suites of incidental music.
SFS's production cuts the play down to a series of short and disjunct scenes. Musically, it's similarly disjunct, using a subset of Grieg's incidental music and adding in portions of Schnittke's ballet music and a gigantic interlude (?), Ocean Voyage, by Robin Holloway.
The Holloway was out of scale and out of place. Here we are, listening to fragments of the play and short stretches of incidental music, among which Holloway's 25-minute piece felt like a clumsy and repetitive intruder. Too long in context, and possibly just plain too long, it's entertaining in its way but not on this program.
The Schnittke, though, is another story. How I'd love to see the Peer Gynt ballet for which he wrote it; it's marvelously atmospheric, threatening and intense, and made a fine counterpoint to Grieg's mostly-familiar music.
Which I say because mostly you don't hear "In the Hall of the Mountain King" performed with the chorus, which makes it something quite different. Anyway, the Grieg and Schnittke were wonderful to hear; I just wish I'd caught Herbert Blomstedt's 1988 traversal of the complete, 26-part incidental score.
Why, then, did I nearly flee the hall? The goddamned amplification.
SFS should know better. Every musical presenter in the Bay Area should know better. But they don't.
When audiences have to lean forward a bit to listen hard to an unamplified performer, they're drawn in and the performance becomes intimate. Their concentration goes up.
When the sound goes straight to your ear, all nuance is lost. An orchestra plays, and the next voice you hear is louder than the orchestra. The aural scale is distorted, directionality is lost, everything sounds the same.
Stop doing this to your audience. Trust the actors to do their jobs; if they really can't overcome the Davies acoustics, minimize the amplification as much as possible. And warn the audience in advance.
Updated because it is not the actors' fault that the Symphony or the director made bad decisions about amplification.