Sunday, June 09, 2024

Mother Goose and Erwartung at SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony presented an adventurous program this weekend with Ravel's 1911 Mother Goose ballet and Schoenberg's 1909 opera Ewartung. Before Friday's performance, the choreographer Alonzo King (above right) and director Peter Sellars (above left) talked about bringing different artistic disciplines together and having them "gel." Although the concert was never less than fascinating, the contributions by King and Sellars turned out to be the weakest links of the evening.
Ravel's Ma mère l'Oye started as a piano piece for children, illustrating a quintet of French fairy tales, and was later orchestrated for a suite and then further extended into a 30-minute ballet, here danced by the San Francisco based Alonzo King LINES Ballet.
The music is colorful, enchanting, and delicate while King's choreography was athletic, expressionist, and noisily clomping all over the makeshift stage. I was hoping for story ballet versions of the five tales but instead we were offered King's attempts at "unearthing the deeper allegorical meanings beneath the fairytales--these deep metaphysical truths that are so large they've had to be shrunk into stories--and illustrate those with dance."
I'm afraid the allegorical truths went over my head, but there was relief at one point when the lovely dancers Adji Cissoko and Shuaib Elhassan engaged in a delicate pas de deux midway during either the Sleeping Beauty or the Beauty and the Beast section. (Production photo by Kristen Loken.)
Meanwhile, Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen led the orchestra in an exquisitely beautiful account of the music. As much as I enjoy watching dancers moving with music, in this case I wanted them to stop stomping on the stage and let us listen to the music unimpeded.
After intermission, there was a terrific musical account of Schoenberg's dissonant 1909 monodrama Erwartung about a hysterical woman wandering in a nighttime forest who stumbles across her dead lover who she either killed or didn't. It's heightened pre-WWI Vienna expressionism at its most emblematic, with a monstrously huge orchestra and a single soprano navigating her way around it. The soprano soloist was Mary Elizabeth Williams and she was stupendous, with a voice that never sounded strained and that could carry over the large orchestral forces whether singing softly or loudly. It would be great to hear her across the street in a major role at the San Francisco Opera. (Production photo by Kristen Loken.)
Director Peter Sellar's contribution seemed to be confined to a contemporary concept, Accidental Death in Custody, with an ugly body bag plopped in front of the singer. West Edge Opera produced this opera with a reduced orchestra in Oakland last summer, and their staging of the heroine in a sanitarium worked much better dramatically. (Production photo by Kristen Loken.)
This was the first time the SF Symphony had performed Erwartung, and more power to them for scheduling an important, difficult work, with an orchestra and conductor at their peak. Maybe the next time it will all gel.

No comments: