Friday, January 18, 2013

I'll Have to Read the Play.

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.


Joshua Kosman said...

Well said. And y'know, it's not the actors' fault that the amplification was up so goddam high, but it sure is Ben Huber's fault that he's such a crappy actor. Seriously, doesn't he sound like every self-serious conservatory graduate you've ever heard butcher Shakespeare?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ahaha. Donna said "Miscast." Me, I had a hard time paying attention to the acting. Between not being able to see very well and my hatred of the amplification, about the only things I noticed were the seductive Troll Princess and Solveig's innocence.

Anonymous said...

I entirely agree; it was ghastly. (My comments)

My problem was two-fold: first, that the format made the show about the play rather than about the music - all three composers would have fared better in a real concert - and it's a lousy, uninviting play. The abridgment saved it from the original's intolerable length but also made it choppy and even less interesting.

Second, as Joshua Kosman notes: lousy acting. Which is about what one would expect in the circumstances.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I intend to read the play, which sounds pretty interesting.

I see that Joshua wasn't thrilled with the whole thing either.

Joshua Kosman said...

Read the play, really? Boy you must've spotted something that eluded me; it seemed like pretty uninteresting Romantic pseudo-profound wankery from where I sat. Though of course this was probably not an ideal introduction.

I'll say this though: When Solveig reappeared at the end to say "I met you at a party once years ago, and since then I've done nothing at all with my life except wait here pitiably for you to return and expire on my breast," I was seized with a powerful and savage urge to seek out every single work of literature, music and art created by men in the 19th century and burn it to cinders. YMMV.

Joshua Kosman said...

Also: I so wanted to include a wisecrack in my review about being assimilated by the B√łyg, but there just wasn't any place for it.

Lisa Hirsch said...


About reading the play, I have some fondness for sprawling messes, both musical and literary. Sure, the play might turn out to be uninteresting Romantic, etc., but the short excerpts the other night make up a tiny fraction. If I finish the thing, I'll let you know what I think.

Yes, well, I understand that reaction to Solveig. Perhaps we can take up a collection and buy her a copy of The Second Sex.

Civic Center said...

Yeah, I feel the same way about Goethe's Faust, with all that uninteresting Romantic pseudo-profound wankery. And what an annoying character Faust was, not to mention Marguerite. What was her problem anyway? Didn't she know how to be liberated?

More seriously, I saw a five-hour version of the play at A.C.T. in the mid-1970s, when the theater troupe was still interesting, and was moved and fascinated. It's a famous piece of literature for a reason. It also helped that the young actor playing Peer Gynt was charmingly charistmatic, which wasn't always the case at the Symphony this week.

And after hearing the amplification at the SFJAZZ Center press preview this weekend, I think it's time somebody at Davies Hall consults with the acousticians across the street, since amplified sound has always been so problematic at Davies.

Henry Holland said...

Sounds like a pretty grim night at SFO.

Werner Egk wrote a nice opera based on Peer Gynt, there's an excellent recording on the Orfeo.

Speaking of bad programming...

Lisa, I'm starting my annual visitation of opera and symphony websites to look for interesting stuff. I nearly lept out of my chair when I saw this:

London Symphony Orchestra
March 20, 2014
Daniel Harding, conductor

I love that piece, one of my very favorites, only heard it live once, with Rattle and the CBSO in the 90's. Wow! What's it paired with? Oh no, no, no, NO NO NO NO.

Brahms: Piano Concerto #1

WTF does Brahms have to do with Birtwistle and vice versa? Why not some Stravinsky or Varese or something? *sigh*

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oy. Well, they have to sell tickets...I see the pianist is Paul lewis, so this fits into "Sounds British."

Patrick J. Vaz said...


Were you aware that this coming weekend Cal Performances has two Birtwhistle works on the schedule, including a west coast premiere? Jan 26: Eco Ensemble and Jan 27: Nicholas Hodges.

here's the website:

Thought I'd mention it just in case.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Blogger is too stupid to make that a clickable link, so here is a direct link to Eco Ensembl's program and to Nicolas Hodges.

Henry Holland said...

Patrick and Lisa, thanks for the Birtwistle info. Sadly, there's that "I live in Los Angeles, not the Bay Area" thing. Except, of course, if some opera company up north was doing The Mask of Orpheus or The Second Mrs. Kong or The Minotaur, I'd hitchhike and sleep in Golden Park and eat $1 cheeseburgers from McDonald's to see them.

Lisa Hirsch said...

There goes my Saturday night!