Sunday, August 26, 2007

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Switzerland

The San Francisco Symphony is going on a 13-concert European tour that starts at the Edinburgh Festival on August 29th, and after meandering through the BBC Proms in London and all over Germany, finally settles at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland.

On Thursday evening, they held a "bon voyage concert," and the house was heavily papered with free tickets distributed through nonprofits...

...which meant a very long line at the will-call windows.

The concert started with local hero John Adams' 1986 "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," which is one of the best curtain raisers ever written for a large orchestra. The composer was even in attendance and took a bow as the orchestra slimmed down for the Ives Third Symphony.

The Ives was beautifully played and its fantasia on hymns sung at Christian revival meetings was strange and meditative, broken at the end by somebody yelling out a loud "Whoo-hoo!" at its soft, silent close which seemed to bemuse and bewilder the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas in about equal measure.

It's not that a rock concert shout-out is all that out of place for some classical music, such as the preceding Adams or the Strauss piece that followed, but it was definitely weird after the Ives Third.

The last piece on the program's first half was the Final Scene from "Salome," Richard Strauss' early operatic gloss on the decadent Oscar Wilde play, which the symphony is playing to feature the voice of the superstar Deborah Voigt.

Voigt wasn't available for these San Francisco performances, which was probably a good reason to play something else, but her stand-in was a beautiful young graduate from the SF Conservatory of Music, Lise Lindstrom. I couldn't hear much of her voice over the orchestra from where I was sitting on the Side Terrace, but Joshua Kosman in The Chronicle thought Ms. Lindstrom was wonderful (click here for the review).

Oscar Wilde famously wrote, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing," and I have a similar problem with the final scene from "Salome," an opera I grew to loathe while being a supernumerary soldier onstage at a San Francisco Opera production in the early 1990s.

Maria Ewing played the title role quite well in that production, with an all too convincing air of insanity, but it was the legendary old soprano Leonie Rysanek playing her mother Herodias who did everything under the sun to swipe the show. At each performance Ms. Rysanek would come up with new ways to upstage Ewing, including fanning herself whenever Salome had an aria or inventing some other piece of stage action to make sure the eye never left Leonie.

At one performance during a Salome soliloquy, Ms. Rysanek popped out of her throne, walked across the stage to the cistern where St. John the Baptist was being guarded by two soldiers (myself and the late Ian Myshkin), found some stage light, and started sticking her tongue out and making outrageous faces at St. John. Ian and I subsequently spent the next thirty minutes painfully trying to suppress involuntary giggles which would have rather ruined the scene, and we couldn't even leave the stage because we had to crush Salome with our shields for the finale.

Hearing this piece again, the hilarious and ridiculous scene came rushing back to memory, and when Ms. Lindstrom tripped on a stair upon her exit and executed a Marx Brothers pratfall in her fancy red concert dress, it seemed entirely appropriate though obviously mortifying.

The second half of the concert featured Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, and fearing further disaster, I exited.

Update: The Symphony has started a blog of the tour over at SFGate that's quite interesting. Check it out by clicking here.

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