Sunday, January 20, 2013

Peer Gynt at the San Francisco Symphony

This week the San Francisco Symphony and its Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas offered a two-hour multimedia condensation of Ibsen's monumental verse play Peer Gynt from 1876. Short scenes played by amplified actors at the front of the stage were bracketed by the original incidental music written by Grieg, along with a few sinister sounding selections from a 1980s ballet version by Alfred Schnittke, and a 20-minute "Ocean Voyage" excerpt from a much longer version of the Peer Gynt tale by British composer Robin Holloway above.

The video projections on the sculptural cloud above the orchestra by Adam Larsen and Cameron Jaye Mock were marvelous and evocative, and the musical performances by orchestra and Symphony Chorus were superb. Though most of the acting was a bit too hearty in a Broadway style for my taste, it wasn't bad, even though the amplification of their voices was tinny and awful. One kept expecting the actors to burst into song, and when soprano Joelle Harvey (below) as Solveig did just that, exquisitely, it was one of the most pleasurable moments of the evening. The event had something of a schizophrenic feel because of the jarringly different stylistic elements, and reactions to the performances have been all over the map, from enthusiastic (Gereben) and appreciative (Vaz) to irritated (Kosman) and semi-appalled (Hirsch).

In 1975, back when A.C.T. was still an interesting theater company, Allen Fletcher mounted a simple, Story Theater style production of the play that was successful enough that it was brought back for a second season in 1976. Stylistically, the play about a rake's progress through life is modeled on Goethe's Faust, which means it's a long, ambitious mixture of low comedy, high philosophy, picaresque adventures, and a host of supernatural elements.

The revelation of these Symphony performances for me was how extraordinary the Grieg music is in its original context, before the composer put together his top tunes into a pair of short suites which have been incessantly played worldwide ever since. It made me wish we were seeing the entire play accompanied by the 90 minutes of Grieg's original score rather than just snippets. The Schnittke and Holloway excerpts were fine, but as my friend Andrew Melomet said in the lobby afterwards, "I really wanted to hear Grieg's 'Arabian Dance' instead." If ever there is money in my life before the button-molder melts me down, a trip to rural Vinstra, Norway has just been added to the bucket list. An annual, August outdoor festival there produces the complete play with Grieg's original music framed by the lake and mountains where most of the story takes place. Now that would be something. (Photo of Joelle Harvey above is by Kristen Loken.)

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