French Music at the San Francisco Symphony

Dave and I went to Davies Thursday night to hear Michael Tilsen Thomas conduct four French works: Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and Les Nuits d’été, the latter sung by Susan Graham, Debussy’s Nocturnes, and Dukas’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice.

The concert got off to a poor start with a slapdash performance of the Roman Carnival Overture. Entrances were ragged, rhythms were off, accents were not quite where they should have been. I leaned over to Dave during the applause and murmured, Well, I guess we know where the rehearsal time didn’t go to. Dave noted that MTT wasn’t conducting from a score, which may have had something to do with it, too. The Roman Carnival Overture is one of my favorite pieces of light music but I could have skipped this performance.

Les Nuits d’été, on the other hand, was beautiful, lush and sumptuous both in playing and in Susan Graham’s singing. MTT asked beforehand that we respect the silences between the songs, and the audience complied, but personally I think it’s just plain unnatural not to applaud songs that were so clearly written as separate units and are so beautifully performed.

Being more of a word person by nature than a music person, and not being very familiar with the songs (I’ve heard them a couple times before, but not often and not recently), I followed along with the French text as well as I could, with the help of the sometimes inaccurate English translation. I think for the most part Berlioz gave the poet much better than he deserved — the poems are a bit overheated and flowery for my taste. Birds don’t just sing, they either recite poetry or they weep for their departed mates; dew doesn’t take the form of drops of water, it comes in pearls or in silver tears. But the music is delightful and the performance was delicious.

Nocturnes was terrific, too, very suave and subtle. And then the big surprise was how good The Sorceror’s Apprentice was. I’d figured by that time it was going to be like the Roman Carnival Overture, an old warhorse that they’d filled out the program with because it wouldn’t require much rehearsal to do a passable job on. Well, it was a complete delight — detailed and crisp and funny. Neither Dave nor I had ever heard the piece performed live (the one piece on the program, in fact, for which that was true for both us), and I gotta say, it is a much funnier piece of music than I’d realized from recordings, or even from Fantasia, where you figure it’s Mickey Mouse that is making you laugh. The music isn’t funny in the sense of being witty and sly and sophisticated, in the way that, say, Richard Strauss could be funny; it’s funny in the way that the Arabian Nights stories or the Uncle Remus stories are funny, a skillfully told comic fable. I was hearing a lot of things in the music I’d never heard before, so much so that I rarely found myself picturing Mickey at all — though of course it’s also true that my ideas about precisely what is happening at any given point in the music have been shaped by Fantasia and may not always be exactly what Dukas thought was happening — if he had such specific ideas at all. So I’m sure the mouse has had its influence over my response to the work all the same.

About a minute into the piece, a couple in the next section over to our right got up and very ostentatiously departed, with a lot of huffy-sounding whispering and letting their seats spring back up with a wham. Jeez, people, if your sensibility is too refined to enjoy ten minutes of earthy comedy, fine, it’s your life, but what’s with making the big show of it? Was the break of several minutes after the Nocturnes too short for you to make a sufficiently Grand Departure? Or did you feel a need to wait until you could be sure of our undivided attention before you oh so ostentatiously demonstrated the superiority of your taste over ours?

Later: Joshua Kosman, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, had the scoop on the sloppy first piece:

The first half of the evening, devoted to music of Berlioz, proved less satisfying. Even the programming itself was a bit of a disappointment, since the program had originally called for Thomas to conduct “Les Bandar-log,” one of Charles Koechlin’s seven orchestral meditations on Kipling’s “Jungle Book.”

But according to a Symphony spokesman, the extended rehearsals required for last week’s partial premiere of Robin Holloway’s massive Fourth Concerto for Orchestra made it impossible to work up the Koechlin score. Instead, the orchestra ran through Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” Overture in a spirited but rough-hewn performance that testified all too clearly to a shortage of prep time.

I was disappointed to see, though, that he let Fantasia get in the way of his enjoyment of the Dukas. His review began with:

The effect of Walt Disney’s efforts on behalf of the music of Paul Dukas has been ambivalent at best.

On the one hand, Mickey Mouse’s hilariously panicky travails in “Fantasia” mean that “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is well known to nearly any listener, even one for whom the rest of Dukas’ meager legacy is no more than a rumor.

But it also means that no performance of this exuberant scherzo — not even one as dynamic and exciting as Wednesday’s offering by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony — can ever be heard without conjuring up images of white-gloved rodents and multiplying broomsticks.

I’m not seeing why this is a bad thing. The Disney cartoon of The Sorceror’s Apprentice is memorable precisely because it’s a masterpiece, brilliant animation tied to brilliant music. Why is it a problem if I’m reminded of it as I listen to the music in the concert hall? It doesn’t keep me from engaging myself with the music, any more than my uncountable associations with uncountable other pieces of music detract from my listening to them again.

And this was a rare opportunity to hear this piece performed live by a first-rate orchestra, and to hear things in it that I never noticed before. Where’s the downside?

At least Joshua Kosman had something to say. Rather like the poems that Berlioz set to music in Les Nuits d’été, the review in the Contra Costa Times is full of swooning, florid writing that doesn’t say much:

That program arrived Wednesday night at Davies Symphony Hall, with [Susan Graham] guiding Hector Berlioz’s six songs of “Summer Nights” into their diaphanous dominion. What a performance by the Texas-bred singer: flickering, refined, delectable, airy, pure, lustrous and emotionally aglow, even feverish, yet as muted as her peach chiffon gown and the sheer shawl around her neck.

Equally remarkable was the performance by Tilson Thomas and the orchestra. With this program, which repeats at Davies through Saturday night, the conductor and his players seem to have walked through a veil into a French mystery room.

The program is devoted to music by Berlioz, Debussy and Dukas. And, as magnificent as was Graham, the evening wound up being a statement by the orchestra about its ability to control music of the most rarified atmosphere and temperament. It stepped up to the challenge of the repertory, playing with supreme delicacy and titillating tension.

Imagine that! A concert about an orchestra’s ability to control music! What next? How about a column about the columnist’s ability to control words!

Like, say, the spelling of “rarefied”.

What a character, Berlioz. Think of him as the Thelonious Monk of 19th century French classical music: clearly arising out of a tradition, yet standing so outside of it with his strange, unforgettable melodies, slanting rhythms, and private worlds of color and expression. …

His “Roman Carnival Overture,” which opened Wednesday’s program, sounds as if it were composed for a private circus: a scorch of strings, an outbreak of pulsating brass, then a calm, salubrious solo for English horn (beautifully played Wednesday by Adam Dinitz) before it all grows lush again, with whorls of flutes and a tensile rush to the finish line.

Boy oh boy, somebody is making his high school music appreciation teacher very, very proud today.

Of Les Nuits d’été, he writes:

Graham’s entrance into this entrancing music was electrifying for its lustrous clarity, and her tone sustained warmth and richness throughout her register. Her diction was perfect, and there was a sense to her performance of a flower opening and releasing elusive fragrances.

That’s some serious wood this guy was sporting. Lustrous clarity. Her tone sustained warmth throughout her register. He uses words like an artist uses tiles in a mosaic.

(The image of a flower opening and releasing its fragrance actually occurs not once but twice in the poems of Les Nuits d’été. Unconscious influence? Plagiarism? Deadpan parody?)

Of one of the songs:

She and the orchestra — those fabulously quiet clarinets, horns, cellos and violas — seemed balanced and poised en pointe, like dancers.

Oh, that orchestra, the one with the musical instruments in it. En pointe, like dancers. Man, I hope Davies dry-cleaned his seat before letting the next person sit there.

To Be Fair to Bush, Though, I Have to Admit I Have Heard Not a Single Complaint that the Phone Booths in New Orleans and Baghdad Smell Like Pee

Heard on the 2/7/07 edition of MSNBC’s Imus in the Morning, as reported on the WELL:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: The subways didn’t smell like pee anymore. Even the phone booths in New York have always smelled like pee — when there’s not even a booth, it’s just a phone and it smells like pee. And [Giuliani] cleaned it up, and he made you feel like you had a right to walk the street safely. I think he did a great job. I’m sorry. And I think the country wants a boss like that. You know, a little bit of fascism there. Just a little bit. Just a pinch of it.

As if. As if it were “a pinch of fascism” that got the subways and phone booths mopped, rather than a willingness to commit some resources to it and actually pay someone to do the job and have someone in charge actually take the time and trouble to check up and make sure it got done. As if it were impossible to get the subways and phone booths mopped in any other way but making people afraid to displease the powerful. As if the remarkable cleanup of the Times Square area, which is almost certainly what Mr. Matthews is talking about, were due primarily to Giuliani and not the Walt Disney Company. As if the Bush administration has not already been handling affairs both domestic and foreign with more than a pinch of fascism, and the result has been that two of the world’s great cities have in fact been left in a considerably less sanitary condition than they were when Bush & Co. took over.

There is this great myth we have that fascism at least makes things run more efficiently. Such is the power of that myth that we still want to believe in it even though there is no shortage of fascist countries that the proponents of “a pinch of fascism” somehow do not seem to care to move to; even though we all saw for ourselves how the Soviet Union’s horrendous inefficiency ultimately led to its collapse; even though those who lived through Mussolini have told us over and over again that, no, no, no, he did not in fact make the trains run on time.

Mistrial in the Watada Court Martial

The court martial of Lt. Ehren Watada ended yesterday in a mistrial. A new trial has been scheduled for March 19.

Here’s an article about it at The Raw Story.

The judge [military judge Lieutenant Colonel John Head] said the instructions requested by the defense, which were not immediately clear, could conflict with a pre-trial agreement between prosecution and defense concerning Watada’s motives for not deploying to Iraq.

Prosecutors on Tuesday told the court Watada had brought disgrace upon himself after and the services by deciding to abandon his soldiers and accusing the army of committing war crimes in Iraq.

Although the US Army insists that a soldier has to respect the chain of command and cannot choose which war to fight in, Watada has said that under the US Constitution he has the right to refuse an illegal order.

Watada joined the army in 2003 and was posted in South Korea until 2005, when he was transferred to Fort Lewis to prepare for deployment to Iraq.

Instead he requested to be transferred to another unit and proposed that he be deployed to Afghanistan. That was turned down.

Head ruled on Monday that the issue of the legality of the war in Iraq will not be raised during the court martial, saying the proceeding has no authority to rule on the question.

Quote of the Day

Stephen Colbert, on the 1/8/07 episode of The Colbert Report:

Children are just lobbyists who get political favors in exchange for being adorable. I’ve said it before: They’re here to replace us, and if we don’t do something soon, they will.

Farm Boys and The Birthday Party

Saturday night, Dave and Terry and I saw Farm Boys at the New Conservatory Theater, and then Sunday night Dave and I saw The Birthday Party at the Aurora.

Farm Boys is an affecting play despite what I think are some weaknesses in the writing. A gay man inherits a midwestern farm from an older man with whom he had a love affair many years ago — the older man’s first. The younger man moved out of the Midwest, though, years ago and is uneasy about the idea of moving back and taking over the place. And he’s clearly troubled by his memories of his relationship with the older man — some of which we see acted out as flashbacks.

I especially liked Brian Levy as the ghost/flashback of the older man and Scarlett Hepworth as his ex-wife — very warm and loving portrayals of their characters. I thought the writing of the play was not everything it could be, though — I felt that a fair amount of the dialogue was just a bit too formal to sound completely natural, and in the second act I really wanted to see more of the relationship between the two men — what happened after they became lovers and before they separated. I think I’d have come away with a more vivid sense of what the relationship meant to them in their memories if I’d had seen more of what it was at the time, and I came away wishing that more time in the second act could have spent with the flashbacks, which seem to me to be the emotional core of the story.

For all that, it’s a very moving play, and I might try to go see it one more time before it closes weekend after next.

The Birthday Party is not a play I’m wild about, and the Aurora’s production didn’t make me a convert. I think I understand and appreciate what Pinter is doing technically in his plays, I just never seem to be able to care much that he’s doing it. I can see that there are some interesting ideas in the play, but they seem few and thin to me, nowhere near substantial enough to sustain my attention for three acts. But the whole cast is terrific and it was a good evening. Dave and I mostly went because we’re fans of James Carpenter and Julian Lopez-Morillas, who — lucky us — are in the two most important roles and doing a compelling job of it. But whole ensemble is excellent. Phoebe Moyer is wonderful and funny as the landlady whose name I’m forgetting, the one who keeps asking if the corn flakes are nice.

I’ve enjoyed James Carpenter’s work for some 15 years or more now, but he’s always seemed to me to be the sort of actor who is really good as long as he stays within a fairly limited range of what he can do very well — now between this and last season’s The Master Builder, I’m not so sure about that any more. Both that performance and this one had a breadth and depth of feeling to them that I don’t remember seeing before. I won’t mind, though, if he gets more upcoming opportunities to display it in Ibsen than Pinter.

Dave says that The Birthday Party has exactly the same structure as a typical episode of The Goon Show. I don’t know enough about The Goon Show to repeat his explanation, but I pass it along here in case it’s an enlightening insight for anyone. And it does occur to me that I’d probably like The Birthday Party much better if it had been a short one-act.

Goodbye to Maeterlinck

Maeterlinck, the older of our two parakeets, died last Friday, probably sometime during the night. I was heading out the door to work in the morning, and Dave was following me out, and he looked in the cage as he walked by and saw him on the floor of the cage.

We buried Maeterlinck in the yard on Saturday, and Sunday after brunch with Terry the three of us went to Lucky Dog on San Pablo Avenue to look for a new mate for Rossetti, our other ‘keet. We came home, though, with two, a light blue male and a green and yellow female. Rossetti (after Christina, not Gabriel) is a female. (Do you know how to tell a parakeet’s sex? Look at the little area right above its beak, around the nostrils. On males this is blue and on females this is pink. No, seriously.) We wanted to avoid getting two males out of the vague notion that the two males might quarrel for dominance and poor Rossetti would get the worst of it.

But we’ve been glad to see that so far the three of them have been getting along very contentedly. No sign of friction as yet, just a lot of friendly behavior.