United States Ives, Milhaud, Sibelius, Adès: Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Kirill Gerstein (piano), Tal Rosner (video artist), San Francisco Symphony, Thomas Adès (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 5.3.2015 (HS)
Ives: The Unanswered Question
Milhaud: La Création du Monde
Adès: In Seven Days
This should have been a great program. The main event was San Francisco Symphony’s first performances of Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days, a music and video interpretation of the Judeo-Christian creation story. The other works also took on different creation narratives. Milhaud’s jazz-steeped La Création du Monde, inspired by African myths, was followed by Sibelius’ Luonnotar, the epic Finnish creation tale that begins the Kalevala, which Sibelius mined for 12 tone poems, including Kullervo and the Lemminkäinen Suite (which includes The Swan of Tuonela). To open the show, there was Ives’ The Unanswered Question, which the composer suggested was a contemplation of existence itself—sort of a creation moment.
Good ideas, and each work received splendid performances. But something was missing, and on reflection it’s that none of this music reached the finest levels from any of these composers. It’s good stuff, but never quite transcendent enough to reflect something so deep and fundamental.
Ives’ piece comes closest, posing questions of where we come from to those who don’t want to hear them. An off-stage string orchestra (here stationed behind the audience in the lobby anteroom) intones a chorale-like hymn. A solo trumpet asks “the question” seven times, with a flute quartet responding with increasing annoyance and dissonance, even mocking the question at times, eventually giving up. It’s a wonderful piece, and the San Francisco strings laid down a soft and tender carpet of sound for principal trumpet Mark Inouye. The quarreling flutists screeched brilliantly, but in the end, it’s only six minutes long.
Milhaud’s work was the prolific French-Swiss composer’s first earnest attempt at using the American jazz that fascinated him on a 1922 visit to New York’s Harlem. Although he used jazz extensively in other works, this one has that extra frisson of discovery. An alto saxophone introduces a lovely tune, and pizzicato bass with a drum kit underpin sharply defined rhythms. Over its 20 minutes, it’s filled with color and pizzazz. But deep, it’s not.
Sibelius’s Luonnotar, from 1917, was written after the Fourth Symphony, and it has the composer’s sure hand with orchestral color and musical structure. Dawn Upshaw handled the vocal line for soprano with character, terrific presence and pearly tone. The orchestra galloped and sighed, floated on waves, and eventually rose to a big climax: a musical rendering of the Kalevala’s account of the primordial feminine spirit of nature, who descends to the sea for seven centuries and emerges to create the cosmos. Maybe you have to be Finnish to be moved by it, but this felt more like a 10-minute diversion than a fundamental tale.
In his own music, Adès suffers no inhibitions writing large, and displaying complete command of orchestration and form. Using an outsized orchestra and full battery of glittery percussion, In Seven Days creates a dazzling array of colors. Distinctive musical ideas and pungent harmonies play against surging rhythms, timed precisely to a video created by Tal Rosner (who did the remarkably effective video component of San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged Peter Grimes last year). Above the orchestra, on a wide screen divided into six frames, Rosner’s video piled distorted images upon one another, and scribbled extra geometric shapes onto the moving pictures. (According to the program notes, images were shot at Disney Hall in Los Angeles and the Royal Festival Hall in London—the two sites of the 2008 premiere—but the specific locations do not register.)
All of this suffuses the senses so thoroughly that the ear hardly notices that this is also supposed to be a piano concerto. At least the program indicated that it was, and indeed, Kirill Gerstein was seated at the concert grand out front. By my count there might have been 45 seconds during the 30-minute duration in which the piano actually carried the ball. For most of the piece Gerstein was occupied with adding angular skips and dissonant filigrees to the musical texture—difficult to execute, no doubt, but I could not help feeling that either the piano or the video was superfluous.
This uncomfortable confrontation of textures, musical narrative and video seemed to compromise each element rather than enhance, a long way from the trumpet’s eloquent question at the beginning of the evening. Ives’ simple, focused few minutes went more directly to an emotional center than all the rest combined.