Last season at the Symphony one of the programs I was most looking forward to was the premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Five Shakespeare Sonnets, since I like Wainwright and love Shakespeare. The rest of the program (the ballet music from Faust, Vivier’s Zipangu, and Poulenc’s suite from Les Biches) was also well-chosen: French or French-inflected, sly and stylish. Of course Wainwright postponed his appearance, and Duncan Shiek appeared in his stead, with a song suite from Whisper House.
Wainwright reappeared on this season’s schedule, but once bitten twice shy, so I didn’t hurry to get a ticket ahead of time. By the time it was clear he would indeed show up with the Shakespeare piece, I had come to one of my periodic realizations that I spend way, way too much on performances, so I decided I should try for a rush ticket, only none were available. I did drop several shamelessly broad hints to my better-connected friends, but they had other guests in mind. This is where I would have posted about Wainwright’s piece if I’d gone to hear it this time around, so I figured I might as well post about last spring’s concert, since I never got around to writing about it at the time.
This was my first time hearing anything by Duncan Shiek. I had skipped Spring Awakening because (what a lesson to people like me who regularly praise theater pieces hoping other people will go see them) the raves really put me off. All that talk of how Broadway would never be the same since the voice of a new generation had arrived blah blah blah – isn’t that exactly what they said about Hair? and West Side Story? and, I don’t know, Babes in Arms? Also: amplified voices with a rock-inflected score: ah, the two things that have ruined American musical theater, together once again.
So Shiek came out after the ballet music from Faust to play his amplified, rock-inflected songs from Whisper House, a musical about an orphan boy during the Second World War who is sent to live in a New England lighthouse which is haunted by the ghosts of those who have died in the surrounding waters. The songs are probably very effective in context, but hearing six of them played straight through rendered them completely ineffective: the material (both words and music) was too thin and the songs all ran together. I could hear the Symphony’s strings under the amplified guitar and vocals, but they didn’t add a whole lot besides ambient buzz, so I really don’t know why they were there.
Shiek seems like a nice guy and was extremely earnest about the whole thing, which is possibly why I was cringing in embarrassment the entire half hour. He was there “to bring in the young people” as he put it in an interview somewhere (I forget exactly where; it was last spring, I can’t remember everything!). The young people failed to oblige. I’ve never seen Davies Hall so empty. When I was, technically, a young person, I was more interested in Messiaen and Mahler than in rock – that’s why I started going to the symphony. I really can’t emphasize that enough: the key to an orchestra’s survival in any meaningful form is that it presents an alternative to the music we get everywhere else.
My point here is not that the sacred temple of Art was profaned by the unholy sounds of Duncan Shiek and his rocking and rolling – it’s that you have this magnificent thing, the symphony orchestra, and it was being reduced to back-up buzz for a novelty act. You don’t survive as an institution by offering a watered-down, more costly version of what is easily available elsewhere. Orchestras claim that pieces like Whisper House bring in people who don’t usually go to the symphony, but so would pole-dancing. Are those people going to come back and listen to Bruckner?
I’m certainly not saying that symphonies should be closed off from the music of their time or content with their current audience; I think there is a real hunger out there for substantial art, though most of those hungering don’t look to the big musical institutions for nourishment. Ironically, this program had a perfect example of where orchestras should be going: in the direction of music like Claude Vivier’s Zipangu, which used the traditional resources of the orchestra to create striking new sounds. Vivier had a strange and almost too picturesque life story (his childhood as an orphan is fairly mysterious and after suffering premonitions of death he was killed in his mid-30s by a young man he had picked up – though, not to be callous, but given his promiscuity at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it’s likely he would have died young anyway; in either case, it was a tragic loss for contemporary music). There's a terrific DVD of his work, Reves d'un Marco Polo, that contains a fascinating documentary as well as a wonderful performance of several of his pieces, including Zipangu; I recommend the disc highly.
In addition to excellent work with the Vivier, conductor Edwin Outwater made the Poulenc crisp, elegant, and witty, and shaped a really lovely performance of the ballet music from Faust – I was so grateful not to have to sit through the dances at the Opera House a few months later, because Gounod’s opera is really long enough as it is without an extra twenty minutes of dancers hopping around in a prettified and therefore inadequate Walpurgishnacht, but the music is delightful on its own. In fact, aside from the intense embarrassment of Shiek’s piece, the whole evening was quite enjoyable. Less Shiek, more Vivier!