Monday, October 14, 2013

Pagan Worship at the SF Symphony

Last week's San Francisco Symphony program was devoted to fairies, magicians, witches, Druid priests, and pagans outwitting murderous Christians. The scruffy young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado above started with Mendelssohn's Suite from A Midsummer Night's Dream, that golden oldie which includes the famous Wedding March.

Unfortunately, the performance was rather dull, but it was probably programmed because the rest of the evening was so unusual. It was followed by scenes from British composer Thomas Ades' 2004 opera of The Tempest, with Shakespeare's English translated by Meredith Oakes into leaner poetry, which seems a bit cheeky and self-defeating. The first three excerpts were between baritone Rod Gilfry as Prospero and soprano Audrey Luna as Ariel above, and you could feel the audience jump when Ms. Luna started singing her stratospheric lines that were so piercing they sounded like music for dogwalkers.

This was followed by a couple scenes for the young lovers, tenor Alek Shrader as Ferdinand and mezzo Isabel Leonard as Miranda above. The four soloists have sung the same roles at a recent production of the opera at the Met, and they were all in excellent voice, with honors going to Audrey Luna just for surviving her high-wire feat. I am still not a fan of Ades as a composer, but enough people I respect do seem to appreciate his music, so the fault may be mine.

The real treat came after intermission with the first Symphony performance of Mendelssohn's 1832 cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht from a poem by Goethe about pagans celebrating their Gods on April 30th high in the Harz Mountains in the face of Christian oppression. The chorus was tremendous throughout the 40-minute cantata and the music extraordinary, which makes it odd that it's the first time most people in the audience had even heard of the piece, let alone actually listened to it. What other treasures are hiding out there?

Rod Gilfry and Alek Shrader returned as soloists singing the parts of Druids and Christians, along with mezzo Charlotte Hellekant in a cameo as "An Old Lady of The People." They filled the house with their voices easily, and it was a joy to hear the Heathens successfully fending off the intolerant Christians, at least for one Spring night.

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