Thursday, January 22, 2015

Grand Pianola Music

Last week at the San Francisco Symphony, the composer John Adams above conducted Grand Pianola Music, his own early, psychedelic masterwork for wind instruments, percussion, two pianos and a trio of sopranos. He wrote and premiered the piece in 1982 at the old Kabuki nightclub as part of the SF Symphony's New and Unusual Music Series, and according to his own account the first performance was something of a disaster. Even more upsetting was the reaction at a new music festival in New York later that year, where some in the audience booed the work.

As Adams notes in the Nonesuch Earbox collection of his music: "True, it was a very shaky performance, and the piece came toward the end of a long series of concerts, many of which featured serialist works from the Columbia-Princeton school. In the context of this otherwise rather sober repertoire, Grand Pianola Music must have seemed like a smirking truant with a dirty face, in need of a severe spanking...The piece could only have been conceived by someone who had grown up surrounded by the detritus of mid-twentieth-century music. Beethoven and Rachmaninov soak in the same warm bath with Liberace, Wagner, the Supremes, Charles Ives, and John Philip Sousa."

I've loved the music since first hearing it on a recording in the Earbox set, and the performance on Sunday was superb, with luxury piano soloists Orli Shaham and Marc-Andre Hamelin rippling and banging away, and the soprano sirens Micaela Haslam, Joanna Forbes L'Estrange, and Heather Cairncross (alto) singing to utter perfection.

The second half of the program was Stravinsky's one hour chamber theater piece with music, A Soldier's Tale, with celebrity narrator Elvis Costello, and British actor Malcolm McDowell above playing the devil. Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle ruined this for me with his mean, accurate review, and I didn't make it through the halfway point. The musicianship of the seven instrumentalists under Tilson Thomas was great, but the entire concept needed to be worked out further. Plus, Davies Hall is just too big for A Soldier's Tale. This would have been a perfect piece to offer at the smaller SoundBox series with the added bonus of theatrical staging and lighting.


sfphoneguy said...

I couldn't agree more. Grand Pianola Music had be transfixed throughout the entire performance, and was the highlight of the evening. The Soldier's Tale was very disappointing. The musicians were flawless, but the approach was pretty pathetic, especially after previous semi-staged successes (Peter Grimes for instance). A couple of dancers (usually part of the piece) would have helped considerably. Those poor actors standing around awkwardly during the longer musical stretches of the latter part of the piece looked helpless. Props? They couldn't find a fiddle and a book in the symphony hall? Also, Elvis Costello is not a great narrator - he wound up sounding like Stravinsky meets Dr. Seuss....

Hattie said...

As Jimmy Durante used to say, "Everybody wants to get into the act!"