Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Her Story at San Francisco Symphony

"Foment" from Her Story
Photo by Kristen Loken, courtesy of San Francisco Symphony

Well, this was a disappointment. Julia Wolfe's Her Story, the latest in her historical oratorio series, played at San Francisco Symphony last week, and...I thought it was not very good. Too few words, unvaried music, a staging that didn't do much for me. Anthracite Fields was so much better! Joshua Kosman was also disappointed. 

This was the third socially-conscious work I reviewed this year, and by far the weakest. The others were Gabriel Kahane's emergency shelter intake form and Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon. The latter is receiving a couple of performances in NYC, at Lincoln Center, in mid-July, if you're nearby and you're curious. I loved it and I'd suggest reading the book first. Keep an eye on Kahane's web site for future performances of emergency shelter intake form.


Kendra Leonard said...

Oh, what a shame about the Wolfe. Melissa Dunphy has set part of the Adams letter as "Remember the Ladies" and I like it--it's a strong text. As a lyricist and librettist, I always worry about what what words and phrases will work with what instrumental forces, and I also rely on my composer collaborators to have a sense of how to handle the instrumentation so that it doesn't cover up any text. From your review it sounds like the anger and density of the instrumental forces needed a larger vocal component, maybe, or a lot more change of textures to allow the text to come through.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I should look for Melissa Dunphy's setting!

I don't know why Wolfe opted for such thick orchestration. It included a piano, an electric guitar, and electric bass, and triple winds. It was all way too much and didn't support the singers well except at the very beginning, when the orchestral texture was light.

Michael Good said...

The singers being in the choir loft at the beginning might also have helped with balances via amplification. When they're standing in the midst of the loud orchestra how could they possibly balance it? Compare and contrast with Kristin Kuster's When There Are Nine, also for amplified chamber chorus and orchestra. The chamber chorus was always kept behind the orchestra, and the orchestration was much less dense.

Am I the only one would found it racist that the white woman got full supertitles, the white men got partial supertitles, and the black woman got none? Especially since you couldn't understand the words without them?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Michael, about the supertitles, are you referring to "Her Story" or to the three works including "Her Story" that I mentioned in my blog post?

When voices are amplified, I suspect that balances depend on what happens at the mixing board rather than where the singers are locasted. The amplified sound came out of the same speakers, regardless of singer position, as far as I could tell.

Michael Good said...

I was just referring to "Her Story." I didn't hear the other two works.

My thought about the amplification is that it seems there's only so high you can mix up the voices when they are standing in the midst of the orchestra because of the bleed from the orchestra into the singers' mics.