09 September 2012

we have always lived in the castle

Continuing my trip backwards through the San Francisco Symphony centennial season. . . .

My second-to-the-last Symphony concert of the centennial season (Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 and Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle) was just a week before the finale. I did not realize it at the time but - music aside, since in that regard both evenings were wonderful - it was going to be a complete contrast as an experience to the final concert, which was a nightmare: I write about that concert, quite entertainingly I must say - that's me, spinning my straw into gold! - here.

Back to my penultimate week. It was Thursday night so the Asian Art Museum was open late and fortunately hadn't scheduled anything that would sabotage the experience for people who were actually interested in Asian art, so I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa there for dinner and a look around the galleries. The Phantoms of Asia exhibit was spread over the whole building, though we ended up spending most of our time on the top floor, in the Indian galleries. I thought there was an intriguing idea behind Phantoms of Asia - asking contemporary artists to react to the various Asian traditions and beliefs around spirituality, the afterlife, and cosmic order - but despite a few striking pieces I found the older works on display much more interesting. Perhaps if I had been able to pay more than two fairly brief visits to the show I would have felt differently.

Anyway, on to Symphony Hall. The program opened with Jeremy Denk playing the Liszt, which seemed like luxury casting. Liszt often gets paired with Bartok, I guess because they're both Hungarian, though there is also the entertaining contrast between the former's heavenly rhapsodies (edging into that sort of ethereal spirituality which always seems really sexual) and the latter's more astringent and earthy sound. The Piano Concerto No. 1 is fairly short (about twenty minutes) with a cascading dazzle of sound that for me evoked heavy rain falling through leaves onto a window pane - and then persistently BEEP BEEP BEEP and what the hell is that? I half expected Tilson Thomas to stop the performance and wheel around like a hawk, only it didn't seem to be a device in the hall (and apparently people further back couldn't hear it at all). I think it was something - an exit or a smoke detector or wahtever- in the hall outside the auditorium. Too bad. This was one of the better audiences I've experienced in Davies (no one around me was talking, texting, unwrapping cellophane, flipping noisily through the program, kicking the back of my seat, or squeezing me in so I couldn't breathe) - how perverse of the cosmos to insist that something had to be disruptive.

They must have fixed the BEEP BEEP BEEP right before the intermission because there was no sign of it during or after the break. Denk was pretty wonderful, as was the orchestra, and I feel I should say something more perceptive, or at least appreciative, since obviously a lot of work and sweat and thought goes into tossing off Liszt with easy virtuosity, but honestly serving as the opening amuse-bouche for Duke Bluebeard's Castle is a thankless task.

Into the Castle. This performance included the usually omitted opening narration, spoken by Ken Ruta. The music begins before the narration ends, which means you mostly want the speaker to shut up so you can listen to the music - you know, the usual. I can see why this bit is usually omitted. I hardly remember what the speaker says, and that's not because I'm writing this a few months later; I had forgotten it by the time the concert ended. I just remember it had sort of an ooga-booga Grand Guignol tone that to me signaled "campy horror film" rather than "richly textured, thought-provoking music drama."

Alan Held and Michelle DeYoung were both in strong, striking voice, and the orchestra was both lush and crystalline. The production was semi-staged, but I have no comment on the staging since I couldn't see it. I was in the second row, and the singers were placed behind the orchestra, so given the height of the Davies stage compared to the front orchestra seats the singers were blocked from view except for a few occasions when I'd spot them through a thicket of violas like jungle cats through a tangled underbrush, but those sightings were only sporadic. There were some large vaguely triangular white shapes moving around occasionally above the stage and there were projections, generally of a pretty basic descriptive sort: fields of flowers, close-ups of water dripping down walls, blood, stuff like that. It didn't add a whole lot but it also didn't detract. The projections were kind of a stripped-down version of the visually richer ones that Berkeley Opera (now West Edge Opera) used in its production a few years ago.

This is a really wonderful short opera and should be done more often. For one thing, I take away different impressions every time I see it, which is a sign of a work worth revisiting. Usually I think of the Bluebeard story as very much the wife's story: her love for him, her fear and confusion over the castle's (and his) mysteries, her intellectual curiosity, her bravery in entering and confronting his world. This time it struck me as very much about him, very much the story of a man trapped inside his own mind (this should not be read as Held overpowering DeYoung dramatically, since both were perfectly matched; it's just a matter of noticing something different in a work). As with the protagonist of Die Tote Stadt, even Bluebeard's efforts to reach out only amount to drawing someone else into his painful psychic labyrinth, and there Judith remains with his other wives. Has he literally killed her? Has he psychically killed her? Does she sacrifice herself? Or is it merely an image of her, a memory of what she was to him, that remains? Over in the Indian art galleries before the concert we saw a manuscript painting showing Krishna as a cowherd. For reasons that currently escape me he has to prove to someone who he is. He opens his mouth and the person who demanded his identity staggers back, because inside Krishna's mouth, briefly, one sees the entire universe. And that was how Bluebeard struck me: as a man with the entire universe expanding inside him. What does that leave for those on the outside?

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